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Teen Farmworker's Heat Death Sparks Outcry

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Teen Farmworker's Heat Death Sparks Outcry


Teen Farmworker's Heat Death Sparks Outcry

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Now to California and a protest this week by farm workers.

(Soundbite of protest)

SIEGEL: A group of farm workers walked 50 miles carrying two wooden coffins. Their journey began near vineyards where an undocumented 17-year-old farm worker died of heat exhaustion last month. The workers' destination? The state capital, Sacramento.

As Sasha Khokha of member station KQED reports, the 17-year-old's death raises questions about strict California laws which are intended to keep workers safe on hot days in the fields.

SASHA KHOKHA: Maria Isabel Vasquez Jimenez was tying grape vines at a farm east of Stockton on May 14th when the temperature soared well above 95 degrees. The nearest water cooler was a 10 minute walk away, and workers say the strict foreman didn't allow them a long enough break to stop and get a drink. Vasquez collapsed from heat exhaustion. Her fiance, Florentino Bautista, cradled her in his arms.

Mr. FLORENTINO BAUTISTA (Farm Worker): (Through translator) When she fell, she looked bad. She didn't regain consciousness. She just fell down and didn't react. I told her to be strong so we could see each other again.

KHOKHA: Nineteen-year-old Bautista had saved up money to buy a gold ring for Maria Isabel, his childhood sweetheart from their indigenous village in Oaxaca, Mexico.

Mr. BAUTISTA: (Speaking Spanish)

KHOKHA: Bautista says after she collapsed the farm labor contractor delayed bringing Maria Isabel to a hospital, first taking her to a drugstore to try and revive her with rubbing alcohol. In a written statement to NPR, Merced Farm Labor says Bautista was the one who decided to stop at the drugstore and that he had refused the company's offer to call a doctor. Furthermore, the company says Maria Isabel wasn't engaged in strenuous work that day and had been working without apparent distress up to the time she collapsed.

What is clear is that by the time she arrived at a hospital, Maria Isabel was in a coma and her body temperature topped 108 degrees. She died two days later. It was only at the hospital Bautista found out she was two months pregnant.

(Soundbite of protest)

KHOKHA: That's why he and about 500 other farm workers carried two empty coffins on their march from the fields to Sacramento this week. Maria Isabel's actual coffin has been shipped back to her mother in Mexico, her body dressed in a white gown and veil.

(Soundbite of protest)

Mr. ARTURO RODRIGUEZ (President, United Farm Workers Union): I think it's that the life of a farm worker is not important to people. People just don't care.

KHOKHA: Arturo Rodriguez is president of the United Farm Workers Union, which organized the march.

Mr. RODRIGUEZ: The reality is, is that the machinery of growers is taken better care of than the lives of farm workers. You wouldn't take a machine out to the field without putting oil in it. How can you take the life of a person and not even give them the basics?

KHOKHA: Merced Farm Labor had been fined and cited for failing to train their employees on heat safety two years ago. State labor inspectors hadn't conducted a follow-up site visit since then. There are only 200 inspectors to audit millions of California employers.

The California Farm Bureau says every industry has a few bad actors. But spokeswoman Danielle Rau says most growers are trying hard to follow the rules.

Ms. DANIELLE RAU (California Farm Bureau): I think that the current standard, when applied correctly, is absolutely adequate. It provides shade and rest. It is certainly a standard that protects employees.

KHOKHA: Florentino Bautista says he never imagined his fiancee's death would spark such an outcry, even an appearance from Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger at her funeral.

Mr. FLORENTINO BAUTISTA: (Speaking Spanish)

KHOKHA: Bautista says the governor put his hand on his shoulder and told him Maria Isabel's death could have been prevented and that he would be sure justice was done.

This week, as the farm workers arrived in Sacramento, the governor also had this to say.

Governor ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER (Republican, California): Because it's inexcusable that those people that pick the fruits and the vegetables and do all this kind of work, that they shouldn't get the right working conditions.

KHOKHA: He also announced that the California labor commissioner was initiating proceedings to revoke Merced Farm Labor's license as a farm worker contractor. For NPR News, I'm Sasha Khokha.

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