Co-Director, Migrant Unit, California Rural Legal Assistance, Inc.
Freelance Journalist and Author
Executive Director, Berkeley Food Institute
How are rising temperatures affecting agriculture and the farmworkers out in the fields? Gabriel Thompson followed migrant workers who put the food on our tables across the country and tells their stories in his most recent book, Chasing the Harvest: Migrant Workers in California Agriculture.
“The work was hard it was low-paid,” he notes, “but what I really could never have gotten from reading articles about farmworkers was that there was a real sense of community there and solidarity and also pride and they enjoyed the work.”
Thompson tells the story of one worker, Roberto, who took on a more activist role after lax oversight and poor working conditions led to a medical emergency with his son. “You tend to think sort that the supervisors have your back in some way, and then when you realize quickly that sometimes they don't and that they almost killed your son,” says Thompson, “that you can really transform into someone who's gonna make sure that to the best of his ability he’s gonna not let that happen anywhere else.”
Blanca Bañuelos, who co-directs the Migrant Unit for California Rural Legal Assistance, is all too familiar with stories like Roberto’s – and worse. “Although employers have the responsibility to take employees to the doctor, they don’t,” she laments. “They frequently tell workers go home. You’re fine just go walk it, you know, walk it off.”
Bañuelos acknowledges that for vulnerable farmworkers who are barely making ends meet, climate change is hardly at the top of their list of their concerns. “They’re low-wage workers who are living in rural communities where there isn’t a lot of options,” she explain. “They may talk about how yeah the sky looks darker today, it's polluted or it's 112 degrees today but I have to get the work done. I have a family to support and I don't want my children to have to work this in the future.”
Ann Thrupp, Executive Director of the Food Institute at UC Berkeley, agrees that climate change disproportionately affects the most vulnerable workers and communities. “Disadvantaged, poor and low-income communities have been most deleteriously affected by climate change… [T]he impacts are borne inequitably against the most vulnerable population.”
That said, Thrupp is optimistic about the pressure consumers can put on food producers to make sure the fruits and vegetables they buy were picked by fairly-treated labor. “It's great to go to your grocers and say have you ever heard of the Equitable Food Initiative with a Fair Food Program,” she cites as an example. “We would love to have you carry strawberries or grapes or fruit or vegetables that are labeled in that way because that gives value to the important improvement of the health and the fairness of working conditions for farmworkers.”
In addition to the guests on stage, this episode features an excerpt of Greg’s interview with labor leader and civil rights activist Dolores Huerta, co-founder of the National Farm Workers Association (now the United Farm Workers Union). Huerta is the subject of a new documentary, directed by Peter Bratt, called Dolores, which chronicles her activism from the early days to her continued fight for workers’ rights.
“When I would sign my contracts I would make sure that the workers were out of the fields by noon,” she recalls, noting how workers nowadays expect to be provided with shade as they work more hours under the sun. “So it’s a hardship on both the workers and also for the employers. And of course with the workers it’s always a health issue whether they can survive the heat.”