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Scouring Fertile Soil for Abuses of Power : Advocates: A poverty law firm's investigations have resulted in dozens of citations against labor contractors.

September 19, 1993|FRED ALVAREZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

On the emerald farmland that stretches from the ocean to the foothills above east Ventura County, a poverty law firm acts as a labor law watchdog.

Emanuel Benitez, a community worker for the Oxnard office of California Rural Legal Assistance, often travels the roads that slice through this food-rich region in search of farm labor violations.

On a recent morning, he nudged his car into a field carved into a hillside rising above Camarillo State Hospital.

Two dozen sweat-soaked laborers, bent from the waist and wrapped in colorful bandannas and thick clothing, kept pace with a rusted red tractor while plucking squash from the vines. The tractor carried no water.

"It's hot out here, what should the workers do if they need water?" Benitez asked the foreman of a farm labor contractor. "To have water in the fields is so simple, so easy, but it's so essential."

Across the Oxnard plain, in the shadow of a ritzy Camarillo country club, a dozen laborers stooped over neatly carved rows of cucumber in a field with no bathroom in sight. The crew foreman, employed by a labor contractor, explained that portable toilets were tucked behind a nearby house.

But closer inspection revealed that the bathrooms had no toilet paper, no water for hand washing and no paper towels, as required by law. Benitez snapped photos of the alleged violations and later filed a complaint with state authorities.

No other agency scours the fields like CRLA.

Over the past three years, complaints by the 4-year-old advocacy group have resulted in dozens of citations against labor contractors for a variety of violations of labor laws designed to protect fieldworkers.

"We started doing this because it was really bad," said Benitez, himself a former farm worker. "It's better now, but still on any day I can find violations in the fields."

Citations generated by CRLA complaints include:

* In the past 11 months, Nateras Farm Labor Service has been fined a total of $2,350 for a variety of health and safety violations, including an $850 fine for providing field workers with short-handled knives, crippling implements outlawed two decades ago because they cause back injuries.

* Three years ago, an administrative law judge upheld a $7,500 fine against Molina Labor Service that was issued for the same offense. The labor contractor filed for bankruptcy earlier this year and now works for someone else.

* Last month, Lugo's Farm Labor was fined $2,000 for operating a tractor in a dangerous manner and failing to provide employees with drinking cups and enough bathrooms to a crew in Moorpark. Robert Lugo, who supervises the business, said the charges are unfounded and that the company has appealed the fine.

While workers cheer CRLA's mission, farmers and contractors accuse the group of being overzealous in its efforts.

Robert P. Roy, general counsel for the Ventura County Agriculture Assn., said CRLA has wrongfully assumed the responsibility of state and federal enforcement agencies.

"They are making themselves out to be ostensibly state agents," said Roy, who represents growers and contractors through the countywide association. "There have been many instances where they have walked right onto private property and started asking questions. We object to that. We believe that is beyond their authority."

Benitez and his co-workers counter that if not for CRLA, there would be little to no enforcement in the fields.

"If the state really wanted to crack down on contractors, they could. It would be easy," said Benitez, cruising past a hiring site where hundreds of job seekers gather. "We go to the fields because no one else will."

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