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Sunday, July 06, 2008

Cal-OSHA Again Shuts Down Farm Labor Contractor Responsible for 17-Year-Old Worker's Death

A few weeks ago, the Vanguard reported on the sad story of a 17-year-old farm worker who died of heat stroke after working for hours in the heat without adequate water, rest, or shade. (Click here to listen to our interview with Marilyn Calderon of the United Farm Workers).

On Friday, the Sacramento Bee reported on an update to the situation. The Merced Farm Labor had been allowed to reopen and send its laborers back to the fields as of June 26 after demonstrating to CAL-OSHA that it met all the requirements for heat protection for its workers. The company had been shut down because it was not requiring its employees to receive heat training.

However, on Thursday, July 3, state inspectors found once again that the company was failing to comply with regulations.

The Stockton Record is reporting that the state is in the process of revoking the contractor license of owner Maria De Colunga who is under investigation for the death of Maria Isabel who died from heat exhaustion in May.

The Record goes on to quote Paul Feist a spokesman for the California Labor and Development Agency, which oversees Cal/OSHA.
Feist said the department is working to revoke De Colugna's contractor license by September, the month her license comes up for renewal.

"Revocation would most likely prevent them from renewing again," Feist said.

"We're not going to let this contractor operate until we're fully convinced they're in compliance," Feist said.
These regulations are not exactly rocket science. They are required to provide water, periodic breaks, and shade. The company had been shut down and warned and they still cannot comply with heat regulations?

Here are the regulations as reported in the Stockton Record.
Companies with outdoor employees are required by state law to provide:

• Training: Train all employees and supervisors about heat illness prevention.

• Water: Provide enough fresh water so that each employee can drink at least one quart per hour, and encourage them to do so.

• Shade: Provide access to shade for at least five minutes of rest when an employee believes he or she needs a preventative recovery period. Employees should not wait until they feel sick to do so.

• Planning: Develop and implement written procedures for complying with the Cal/OSHA Heat Illness Prevention Standard.

Source: Department of Industrial Relations
None of these seem overbearing and most of it is commonsense.

We also now know that Maria Isabel was part of the production team for Bronco Winery which produces the "Two-Buck Chuck"--a best selling wine that is available exclusively at Trader Joe's stores.

The United Farm Workers are working to put pressure on Trader Joe's to change their corporate policies in order to protect farm workers.
Because Maria worked for a labor contractor, she most likely never knew she was part of the production team for Bronco Winery who is better known for Charles Shaw wines--commonly called "Two-Buck Chuck." This best selling wine is available exclusively at Trader Joe's stores. According to Trader Joe's web site, "these super-value wines began as the result of an oversupply of wine and a great relationship with a valued supplier."

Help us ask Trader Joe's to use their "great relationship" to protect the workers who labor to pick the crop. Ask Trader Joe's to implement a corporate policy to ensure that their suppliers are not violating the law by failing to provide farm workers with basic protections such as cold water, shade and clean bathrooms.

Requests of this type are not new to Trader Joe's. Back in 2005 after the Humane Society and customers expressed concerns, Trader Joe's agreed to sell only cage free eggs under the company's label. We commend Trader Joe's for this corporate responsibility and ask them to do the same for farm workers. After all isn't the life of a farm worker as important as the life of a chicken?

Trader Joe's web site says "we listen to what our customers tell us about the choices we give them." Please ask Trader Joe's to listen and take action today. As the exclusive distributor of Charles Shaw wines, they need to take corporate responsibility before more farm workers, like Maria die due to grower neglect.
This morning's Stockton record has an article on Trader Joe's and the UFW.

According to the article here is the connection between the farm and Trader Joe's.
The connection: West Coast Grape Farming is owned by the Franzia family, which also owns Bronco Wine Co., which produces Charles Shaw wines. The selection of wines, sometimes known as Two Buck Chuck, are exclusively sold at Trader Joe's, which caters to health-conscious consumers. Trader Joe's has a store in Lincoln Center in Stockton.
However, Trader Joe's has issued a statement saying that those grapes are not used for Two Buck Chuck.
Alison Mochizuki, a Trader Joe's spokeswoman, said in a written statement that the vineyard where Jimenez pruned does not supply grapes for Charles Shaw wines.

"The company employing the young farm worker has no more of a relation to Trader Joe's than they do to any other wine retailer or restaurant," Mochizuki said.
Further, the spokeperson claims that the company already implements strict policies for its vendors.

"Our vendors have a strong record of providing safe and healthy work environments and we will continue to make certain that our vendors are meeting, if not exceeding, government standards," Mochizuki said.

However Roman Pinal is not buying the explanation. He called the reply a "disheartening attempt to try to distance themselves."

To me this is a very basic request for human dignity. It is appalling that people have attempted in some quarters to justify this tragedy under the guise of the debate on immigration. Regardless of the implications of that debate, there will be farm laborers and they deserve basic workplace protections. What hiker even on a cool day would not bring a bottle of water? Now imagine working all day in the hot sun, with limited breaks, and even more limited water?

Remember that hot weekend in May when it was well over 100 degrees? Maria Isabel was out in the fields working for hours. They made water available to the workers finally after several hours but it was a 10 minute walk and they were only given a 10 minute break. After she collapsed, they put her in a hot van and waited for the other laborers before driving around looking for alcohol. They refused to take her to the hospital because they did not want to admit that she was underage.

As far as I am concerned, they should be in jail for manslaughter. And they should be civilly liable as well.

My patience with Trader Joe's has already warn thin due to local issues involving a proposed Trader Joe's that the company want to open at University Mall in a spot already occupied. They need to step up here and it is apparent that they may not. Until they do, I will not be one of their customers.

The worst part of this tragedy is that basic commonsense at any point along the way would have prevented the death of Maria Isabel. Now it is time for us to examine working conditions in this county and hope that we are doing the right thing.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting