Workers in the fields in Watsonville
Workers in the fields in Watsonville.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
Opinion from Community Voices

California is its own sort of slave state — we need to enact farmworker rights now

Ann Lopez, the executive director of the Center for Farmworker Families, believes California farmworkers “make up a slave subclass modeled after the slavery model from the South.” Farmworker families experience poverty, live in fear of family separation and are suffering high rates of pediatric cancer, birth defects and pesticide-related illnesses, she says, because they lack rights and government safeguards. Here, she offers three steps we all can take to help transform the lives of farmworkers in Santa Cruz County.

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We in California think we are blessedly free of the legacy of slavery. But we are not.

I have spent decades immersing myself in our local farmworker community and speak from what I have observed and learned.

I believe farmworkers make up a slave subclass modeled after the slavery model from the South. Farmworkers — like the slaves of the South — provide the economic backbone of our community, live in inhumane conditions and are “invisible” to most people. Between 60% and 83% of the current farmworkers in our area are undocumented. Many are from Oaxaca. They live in constant fear of deportation and having their families torn apart.

California joined the union as a free, non-slave state through the Compromise of 1850. But, once commercial agriculture was viewed as an important way to promote economic growth in the state, large growers proposed bringing in slaves from the South to fulfill labor requirements.

Today, we are essentially doing that. We have a virtual slave state — with different rules, regulations, laws, penalties, agricultural exceptionalism and fear tactics backing it up.

And it all has one main human consequence — keeping farmworkers trapped, controlled, and unable to escape.

Farmworkers are impoverished, often abused and have minimal or no health insurance. They are overworked with a poor diet, and die at a much lower life expectancy than others.

Farmworkers and their family members are the most exposed population to the health effects of toxic pesticide exposure, as Lookout has documented here and here.

Quite frankly, I am sick and tired of meeting too many children of farmworkers who have cancer — including leukemia, bone cancer, brain cancer and others — birth defects, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, autism spectrum syndrome, learning disabilities. The list literally goes on and on.

It makes my job as executive director of the Center for Farmworker Families exhausting, but also imperative.

These conditions are not isolated incidents; they are rampant in our area.

We all know that if these conditions were common in North County or a wealthy town, there would be news headlines, protests, lawsuits, etc. Why have we normalized it here? Why aren’t we in the streets demanding change?

In the ZIP codes that encompass Santa Cruz County, the 95076 ZIP code, which includes Watsonville, stands out as one of the few in the county that has a majority Latinx population. It’s 70.7%. A full 60% of all Latinx residents in all of Santa Cruz County live in this ZIP code, while only 12.6% of the county’s white population lives there.

However, 98.5% (168.9 of 171.4 pounds) of pesticides associated with childhood leukemia and 95.2% (2113.1 of 2220.1 pounds) of pesticides tied to childhood brain cancer were applied in 2019 in the 95076 ZIP code alone.

There is NO amount of wealth generation from agriculture that can justify the suffering I have seen firsthand in these families.

We see the same pattern in the recent floods. It was known that the levees would break, and somehow farmworkers aren’t considered important enough to prevent pesticide poisoning and the destruction of their town by flooding in Pajaro. These are two examples of both social and environmental racism that must be corrected.

I see three steps we can all take to transform the lives of farmworkers:

  • Comprehensive immigration reform: Those who work weeks, months and years in the field should not be worried about deportation. The entire industrial agricultural system that currently supports us would collapse without them. I consider them to be the MOST essential workers. Why do they live here in a context of fear and poverty? Our Sen. Alex Padilla has introduced the registry bill, which would provide green cards to millions of undocumented individuals, including farmworkers. There are now two broad legalization bills in Congress, H.R. 1511 and S. 2606. I recommend the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights for more on this important topic.
  • A living wage: Farmworkers should not have to depend on charity for essentials. Their work is too important and ubiquitous to expect poverty wages. Farmworkers’ yearly income is usually somewhere between $20,000 and $25,000. Rent for a one-bedroom apartment typically costs $2,000 per month. How are they supposed to purchase food, clothing and other essentials for their families? No one can live in our county on $20,000 per year.
  • A contract with their employer: According to a UC Merced study, 22.5% of farmworker wages are stolen. It’s classic wage theft — no overtime pay, no rest or breaks, no pay for illness, etc. Without a contract, they have few legal options with which to recoup their wages.

You might ask, “What about the growers?”

I and two other board members of the Center for Farmworker Families have met with Driscoll’s CEO Miles Reiter and some of his associates about pesticide reduction and/or conversion to organic agriculture methods near Watsonville schools. There was no commitment on their part, only a vague “maybe someday” type of response.

Farmworkers adjust sprinkler coverage south of Bakersfield.
(Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)

In a way, I don’t blame them. They are business owners playing their roles in the neoliberal economic system we are all in — with a goal of maximizing profits and generating wealth, no matter the cost. Their economic system is based on the exploitation of farmworkers.

The only way that the damage to people and the environment can be mitigated is by transforming the rules under which they operate. We need a transformation of the current industrial agriculture system to sustainable farming practices that don’t depend on agrochemicals and synthetic fertilizers.

The industrial agricultural system responsible for our food supply is unsustainable. And it’s not just humans who are suffering.

According to the World Wildlife Fund, we have lost more than two-thirds of all wild animals since 1970, largely through habitat destruction and poisoning the earth.

One of the worst pesticides used extensively in our area is 1,3-dichloropropene, or Telone. It is drift prone, carcinogenic and a toxic air contaminant. It has been banned for use in 34 countries. More than 1 million pounds was used in our area in 2021.

More than 88% of all Telone applications occurred in the 14 Latino-majority ZIP codes in Santa Cruz and Monterey counties. These areas are home to 77% of the community’s Latinos and 66% of Indigenous people, but only 18% of the white, not Hispanic, population.

Pure environmental racism.

The California Department of Pesticide Regulation is charged with “regulating” the use of dangerous pesticides, as an agency of the state Environmental Protection Agency. However, its funding comes from the agrochemical companies. This is ridiculous.

And, instead of regulating Telone to the scientifically safe limit of only .04 parts per million, the DPR has selected a cancer risk level that allows for 14 times more 1,3-D in the air that farmworker communities breathe.

No one is winning in this system, except for the agrochemical companies that manufacture and profit from the sale of the poisons upon which the system depends.

Ann Lopez, executive director of the Center for Farmworker Families.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

There are any number of studies that indicate that a transformation to organic regenerative agriculture worldwide could feed the entire world’s human population.

Why aren’t we doing that?

I am happy to report that California is the leading organic agriculture state in the country with over 800,000 certified organic acres. The live soils of organic, regenerative agriculture also reduce greenhouse gasses by drawing them out of the air and into the soil.

It is imperative for all of us to join in the fight for transformation of our agricultural system.

Let’s end slavery in our state once and for all.

Ann Aurelia López is executive director of the Center for Farmworker Families and a member of the Campaign for Organic, Regenerative Agriculture. Her previous pieces for Lookout, on the danger of sexual assaults for farmworkers and the need to help minority farmers on the Central Coast ran over the past year. This piece was adapted from a talk she gave at an August event in Watsonville honoring famed labor leader Dolores Huerta.