With heavy smoke from a huge wildfire in southern California filling the air last week on May 2, more than a dozen farm workers left the fields where they were picking strawberries and sought shelter indoors. The Springs Fire, as it has been named, was burning eleven miles north in Camarillo, but workers in the fields of Crisalida Farms in Oxnard could feel ashes falling on them, according to NBC.
Lauro Barrajas, a representative of the United Farm Workers (UFW) said simply “Oh, yeah, the smoke was very bad. That’s no doubt about that.”
A foreman told the 15 workers they would lose their jobs if they left, despite the worsening air quality and conditions. The workers sought shelter. When they returned on May 3, they were fired.
Though they were not members of UFW, the workers contacted Barrajas. UFW representatives met with managers from Crisalida Farms and asserted a union rule that, in the words of Barrajas, “No worker shall work under conditions where they feel his life or health is in danger.”
Cridalida Farms representatives said in a statement to Latin TV network Telemundo that the workers had left without permission when orders needed to be filled. The company said it would pay the workers for the hours they had worked.
But who’s thinking about strawberries when you can’t breathe and the skies are filled with smoke?
As a recent Los Angeles Times article underscores, picking strawberries is — and this is an understatement — demanding work under any conditions. Picking the berries takes a huge toll on a person’s body, muscles and back, as workers most constantly bend over to pick the berries. Workers are often paid by the piece: for five hours of such literally back-breaking work, the best pickers can make $150.
Crisalida Farms has since settled with UFW and offered to hire the workers back. Only one has returned, with the rest taking jobs at other farms where they, it is hoped, have access to better working conditions, including a far more accommodating policy for keeping their jobs in the event of a crisis. As a worker summarized the matter: “While it hurts to lose work, a person’s health is more important.”
Tell Crisalida Farms and other companies that workers need safe working conditions, especially, and certainly, when a natural disaster forces them to seek shelter.
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