A minivan collided with a tractor-trailer in Fresno County, California, on Jan. 9, 2015, killing four migrant/seasonal farm workers and injuring five others who were being transported from an agricultural work site to their homes. They and the driver were employed by a farm labor contractor. Photo credit: Fresno County Coroner/Public Administrator.
Earlier this year, four farmworkers were killed outside of Fresno, California, when the minivan transporting them back home from the local orange groves where they had been working collided with a big rig. Just days later, five more farmworkers died when their vehicle collided with a pickup truck in heavy fog outside Stockton. These deaths are unacceptable, and they were preventable.
Tragedies such as these have played out too many times in California’s Central Valley over the past 15 years. According to the California Highway Patrol, 16 farmworkers died and another 194 were injured while being transported between their homes and their work sites from 2010 to 2014.
Sometimes incidents happen when a fatigued driver has nodded off after working a 10-hour day. Other times it’s because there weren’t enough seatbelts for everyone. In most cases, their employers fail to meet their responsibility to follow federal law and ensure that workers are safely transported to and from job sites.
Advocates and government agencies, like the Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division, have been committed to seeing improved working conditions for farmworkers for decades. That includes proper payment of wages, adequate housing and bathrooms, clean drinking water and safe transportation of workers. Unfortunately, on that last point, progress has been too slow.
The Wage and Hour Division is responsible for enforcing transportation protections under the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act. When the act is violated, and injuries or deaths result, it’s often because growers and their contractors were trying to maximize profits by cutting corners on basic safety practices.
Under the law, farmers and their contractors are required to obtain proper insurance, have vehicles inspected, enforce seatbelt requirements, and take other driver qualification and basic safety measures. The U.S. Department of Labor can fine growers, packer/shippers or farm labor contractors with up to $1,000 per violation for failing to ensure safe transportation.
The Safety and Farm Vehicle Education (SAFE) Program of the California Highway Patrol has led an education campaign to reduce collisions and fatalities resulting from farm workers who ride in unsafe vehicles. We also host workshops throughout the Central Valley to educate employees and employers alike on transportation safety requirements under the law. However, it is not just the department’s or the highway patrol’s job to ensure farmworkers’ safety.
We need growers and their contractors to step up to the plate. Every year, migrant workers converge into California’s agricultural valleys during harvest season and thousands more work in the fields in other agricultural centers throughout the state. Because of the industry’s efforts to avoid liability and save money at the expense of safety, many of these workers are put at risk before they even arrive at the fields to harvest the very food we all need to thrive. Together, we can put an end to these tragedies.
Nora Pedraza is the assistant district director of the Fresno Area Office of the department’s Wage and Hour Division.