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Beyond the Furrows: State organizations and community organizers caravan for farmworker rights

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Francisco Martinez
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In the parts of Santa Maria where green plants and brown soil are abundant, there's a massive truck beaming with LED displays; it's parked on the side of the road. The truck is blasting messages in English, Spanish, and Mixteco.

Close to the truck, Fernando Martinez — megaphone in hand — stands far enough away from the fields so he's not trespassing, but close enough to farmworkers so they can hear him.

He's one of many activists on the Central Coast advocating for farmworker rights. He’s a community organizer for the Mixteco Indígena Community Organizing Project, or MICOP. Martinez was spending the second of three days caravanning across the Central Coast.

"The end goal for this would be farmworkers knowing where to go to, to ensure that they know how to properly do a report — whether it's employers not providing water, not providing shade," Martinez said. "So the end goal would be to ensure that farmers are uplifted and informed of their rights."

A 2015 survey from the Central Coast Alliance for a Sustainable Economy, or CAUSE, identified many ways farmworkers say their rights are being violated. These ways include inadequate breaks, exposure to pesticides, or working in conditions that are dangerous or harmful to their health, among other concerns.

It's not just local organizations like MICOP and CAUSE supporting this caravan and advocating for farmworker rights. State entities like Cal/OSHA, the Agricultural Labor Relations Board, and the California Labor Commissioner's Office all gave their support, too.

Daniela Ramirez is the outreach program manager and communications director for the state's Agricultural Labor Relations Board, or ALRB — the one created in the 1970s by the California Agricultural Labor Relations Act.

Ramirez said the ALRB is working to help this caravan get the messages out about their rights and their benefits because farmworkers may not know these resources exist, or because they face language barriers.

"We want them to know that they have the right to raise their voice at work and to be able to ask for better working conditions, whatever that may be," Ramirez said.

Ramirez said the caravan is important because it helps farmworkers know that the ALRB is a resource that can help them and work with them.

KCBX News spoke to one farmworker along the caravan. He asked to remain anonymous out of fear of retribution.

He's from Oaxaca, a state in Mexico, and is 32 years old. He said he's been working in Santa Maria's fields since he was 13.

The farmworker said he's trailing the caravan in support because he knows there's a retaliatory nature among agricultural employers, because he's lived it.

"Well, for as long as I can remember, we've always been held down — even now," the farmworker said. "But thanks to the organizations here – many thanks to them — we're here, more than anything, going to my fellow farmworkers to help them know their rights, more than anything.

The farmworker said bosses have held down farmworkers for as long as he can remember. But he added that he’s grateful to these advocacy organizations for going to the places where his fellow farmworkers are to help them know their rights.

According to the CAUSE survey, one significant way farmworkers are held down is through wage theft. This can include not paying overtime to farmworkers, undercounting boxes, or not paying farmworkers for required prep work.

That same report found 78.1 percent of farmworkers surveyed were informed of their rights in some way. That means one out of every five farmworkers is in the dark about their rights.

KCBX News reached out to Cindy Jewell, the marketing and communications director at Bobalu Berry Farms, to ask what she thought about the caravan. Bobalu has farms in Santa Maria, and owns West Coast Berry Farms in Nipomo, where farmworkers went on strike in July over wage disputes.

"I personally don't think it's really necessary," Jewell said. "I mean, most farmworkers I've ever talked to and seen know their rights. And it's all posted in Spanish and on every ranch and on every picking card, and pretty much explained to them by people they work with."

When it comes to informing farmworkers of their rights, Jewell said the challenges are like any other job: workers not reading postings, or relying on hearsay, or language barriers. When this happens, Jewell said Bobalu reaches out to fix misinformation.

On the caravan itself, Jewell said she doesn't think anybody has an objection to workers being informed of their rights if organizations feel it’s necessary.

"So long as they're not disrupting someone — if they're not encroaching on someone's property and disrupting people's work day, I mean, I guess that's fine," Jewell said.

Those caveats Jewell mentioned are obstacles for organizers: They can't get on the fields to talk with the workers, because they would be trespassing on private property. And this caravan is trying to catch farmworkers on their breaks — which is a limited time.

California's Labor Commissioner Lilia García-Brower said she is aware of those challenges. But, she adds, it’s still important that the caravan gets its message out, so the farmworkers can hear the information.

"We are not trying to disrupt the operation. We want to support — workers are there to work," García-Brower said. "We want them to complete their hard day's work. But it is helpful when we're able to catch them on a break. And then we provide them that information."

Another challenge is mistrust among farmworkers toward governmental agencies. García-Brower recognized that challenge, and said she hopes the caravan plays a role in creating trust.

Fernando Martinez also recognized that challenge. He said he hopes organizing joint events, like a caravan, with government agencies empowers farmworkers to advocate for their rights as workers.

"I think that kind of builds the trust a little bit more, knowing that the entrusted organizations are working with government agencies in a way that is going to benefit the farmworkers," Martinez said. "I think that's my goal: eliminate that, you know, long and bad image of — maybe — some departments that don't really help or, 'they never come around to help us out.'"

The farmworker said knowing that there are people out there fighting for his — and his coworkers' rights — gives him hope.

"Thanks to those who have given out information about farmworkers rights here in California, I really like how this movement is going,” the farmworker said.

“Beyond the Furrows” is made possible by a grant from the Sunflower Foundation.

Francisco Martinez joined KCBX in January 2021 as a substitute staff announcer, then became a regular midday host, occasional reporter, and host of Citizen Sound — the alternative music show each Sunday night at 11:00 on KCBX. Francisco left KCBX to move back to the Bay Area in January 2022.