Things That Matter

Farmworkers Are Putting Their Lives At Risk As They Continue To Work The Fields Despite Raging Wildfires

Natural disasters bring the best in people, but often also the worst. The recent California fires have highlighted the deep inequalities in the state when it comes to socioeconomic status. While the media went head over heels over which celebrity had had to flee their home (pobrecitos!) or which vineyard had been set ablaze (wine, after all, is a luxury rather than a life sustaining product), few have stopped to think about the long lasting effects that the fires have had on the hundreds of workers (some of them undocumented) who keep the region afloat by farming, cleaning and organizing various production processes. 

Well, what you will read now will make your blood boil, as it reveals the deep divide between the haves and the have-nots in the world. 

As the region of Sonoma, California, is still burning residents have fled but farmers are still working away.

Credit: napavalley / Instagram

When fields burn, the air becomes a toxic mix of dust, ashes and harmful gases (imagine smoking 20 cigarettes in less than an hour and you will get an idea of how poisonous this melange can be). Well, residents of the area affected by the Kincade Fire were evacuated when air quality dropped. However, field workers were still expected to toil in the fields.  According to reports, some of these workers were still being bused to and from the fields even as the fires burnt. What people are willing to risk in the name of profit, eh? Just no! As reported by Eater San Francisco, Ariel Kelly, the CEO of community-based recovery effort Corazón Healdsburg, said: “we had about 90 farmworkers in our shelter leave on buses with their employer to go out and pick and then return back to the shelter”. 

The quality of the air was deemed as dangerous! But “they are only field workers”, right? This is totally outrageous! 

Credit: 10kbottles / Instagram

So what does this tell us? That someone, somewhere, decided that the lives of some actual human beings are more valuable than those of others? You bet that’s what happened. We just can’t understand how this thought, which is nothing short of a disgusting act of negligence, can cross someone’s mind. Of course, farmers are mostly migrants who feel, and are, in a vulnerable and marginalized position in which they can’t afford to fight back. Sonoma authorities said: “if somebody wants perfect health, they need to leave our community, because we have smoke here.”

Volunteers came to their aid…

Credit: Sonoma / Instagram

Regardless of the working agreement a company or farm has with a worker, some basic safety needs to be provided. If not legal (because some of these workers live in the dark shadows of an undocumented status that makes them vulnerable), this is at least an ethical mandate. But in the California fires it was volunteers who came to their aid. As reported by Eater San Francisco: “around 300 farm workers sought makeshift shelter in Cloverdale’s Citrus Fairgrounds. Area volunteers rushed to assist the workers and their families, many of whom had fled via car, with little more than the clothes on their backs”. This is such a stark image of negligence. But will someone ever be held accountable?

If they don’t work, they don’t get paid, so they risked their lives to survive (what a contradiction, eh?)

Credit: thelegionofbloomca / Instagram

According to Ariel Kelly from community-based recovery effort Corazón Healdsburg these workers were not even given masks to at least protect themselves from direct contact with the fumes. They are willing to work under these conditions because they get paid per shift and not showing up translates into not being paid, and possibly into not being chosen to work again. Because the extent of the damage caused by the fires remains uncertain, many of these workers want to get what could be the last few pays before a hiatus with no income. 

They are mostly uninsured and live hand to mouth. To top that, they are now unsure about how they will be able to provide for their families.

Credit: machvox/ Instagram

Maegan Ortiz, the executive director of el Instituto de Educación Popular del Sur de California, told The Guardian, “For a lot of day laborers and household workers, not having a day’s work often means the difference between houselessness or not.  Not having a day’s work is actually a big deal. Not working means not having money for medication for a chronic illness. Not working means not having money for food”. When we read stories like this we can’t help but wonder how on Earth there are still some that think that migrant workers are lazy or that they don’t contribute to the economy, when in fact they are giving everything to make a living. Even if it means risking their health. One thing is for certain. They deserve, and need, more protection. 

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