Monday, June 12, 2017

The high cost of grapes

Last week when my daughter and I were grocery shopping, she recalled the story about how I boycotted grapes for a decade* and asked if it was ok to buy them now.  I said yes with the caveat that we would buy only what we would really eat.  We were not going to let any rot in the fridge.

Do you remember when grapes were stupidly cheap? Stores used to advertise them for $.10 or $.15 per pound!  I think that today's $2/pound for California grapes (hauled hundreds of miles to Colorado) is still crazy cheap.
CA grapes image courtesy of ucanr.edu
Grapes--like all produce--is stupidly cheap because we treat farm workers as disposable people. It routinely reaches 110F (43C) at harvest time in the San Joaquin Valley.  Grape pickers work 10-12 hours a day in the searing heat to bring the harvest in on time.

Look at this list of farmworkers that died 2004-2008.  They are still dying.  Three people died in two days in 2016, including Maria Isabel Vasquez Jimenez.  It's not just grape pickers.

From California's Harvest of Shame: 2012
When a farm worker at Giumarra Vineyards, the largest table grape grower in the country, died of heat in 2004, the United Farm Workers union (UFW) began a campaign to end heat deaths. Since California issued its 2005 regulations to keep farm workers from dying of extreme heat, however, preventable farm worker deaths have continued to occur.
...
The fact is that the state simply just doesn’t have the resources to adequately enforce its heat standards. According to an August 22 editorial in the Desert Sun, “Last year only 1,090 heat inspections were conducted on California’s 81,500 farms. At that rate, many violations could go unnoticed.”

Fortunately, the UFW has a remedy. It has sponsored two bills — the Humane Treatment for Farm Workers Act (AB 2676), sponsored by Assembly member Charles Calderon, and the Farm Worker Safety Act (AB 2346), sponsored by Assembly member Betsy Butler — that will allow farm workers to protect themselves.

The Humane Treatment for Farm Workers Act says that agricultural employers must treat farm workers at least as well as animals or face the same criminal penalties. (California law makes it punishable as a misdemeanor or felony for every person who fails to provide any animal with proper food, drink, shelter or protection from the weather). The bill has already passed the Senate floor and is on its way to the Assembly.
BTW, the bill was vetoed by Governor Brown on the grounds that existing laws were sufficient.  It's hard to see this legal outcome (40 hours community service, 3 years probation and a $370 fine for killing someone) and agree with him.

As a matter of conscience (and consistency), I think that the laws against mistreating humans should be as strong as the laws against mistreating animals.

Driving down Interstate 5, I notice shelters for shade near workers and the occasional chair with an overhead mister for cooling.  Farms located where people are watching probably put on a better show. Perhaps, in the era of personal drones, we can make it harder for farmers and contractors everywhere to evade laws.

I'm heartened by the people who see an opportunity to make working conditions better and scale up. Check out Garth Patterson's $20,000 portable cooling station that can cool down 12 people at once.  Where there's a problem, there's an opportunity!

Garth Patterson with his portable cooling station.  Photo courtesy of AP via ChicoER.
I'm also heartened by the public pressure that is forcing Cal-OSHA to do their job in protecting farm workers from heat stress.

Heat deaths are not the only problem.  Heat stress can lead to kidney failure.  Think about the cost of dialysis and disability payments.  Think about disposable people.

What do you think the true cost of grapes ought to be?

For legal geeks:

Liability for Heat-Related Injuries by San Joaquin Agricultural Law Review

Aside:

* When I was a member of a Berkeley Student Cooperative, a member came to house council to ask why we never had any grapes in the kitchen. The kitchen manager explained that we subscribed to and followed the recommendations in the National Boycott Newsletter, which recommended boycotting grapes.

Summer grapes came from California's central valley, where farmers were resisting farm workers' demands for better pay and working conditions. Winter grapes came from Chile, which was run by the brutal ruler, Pinochet.

Damage to Chile's economy from boycotts might have helped push him out of power in 1988.

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