KERMAN, Calif. — A lot of what California farming is about today was contained within a gold 1989 Ford Aerostar that arrived at a surprise roadblock by state labor authorities as the sun was coming up Tuesday.
The van had no seat belts and was not insured. The driver had neither a driver's license nor the permit required to transport farmworkers.
Inside the van were seven passengers, among them three girls who looked under 18 years old. For several weeks, they had been working in the vineyards outside this small town near Fresno, where they said they made about $40 a day -- well below the state minimum wage of $6.75 an hour.
The workers were Mixtec Indians, illegal immigrants who had recently arrived from the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca. They spoke no English and very little Spanish, primarily just Low Mixtec. So they were bewildered when they were stopped at the roadblock, and likely couldn't read the fliers on farm-worker rights and safety that officers pressed into their hands, along with Krispy Kreme doughnuts.
It was the kind of van that state labor authorities say they expect to encounter as they return to California's fields after years of lax enforcement of farm-labor laws.
Officials marked their return with roadblocks Tuesday, which continue through this week, to check on buses and vans transporting farm workers.
Through the day, authorities paid surprise visits to 43 farms in the six-county region around Fresno, where the farm workforce swells to as many as 500,000 people during the summer. Those visits also will continue this week.
Officials issued citations for violations including nonpayment of the minimum wage, not providing toilets and drinking water in the fields, irregular payment of wages, hiring children and charging for work tools.
"This is the beginning of what we hope is a long process," said Vicky Bradshaw, secretary of the Labor and Workforce Development Agency, which enforces state workplace laws. "We want to make long-term positive change in an industry that has a large number of vulnerable workers."
Bradshaw and her deputy, Jose Millan, served as labor commissioners under Gov. Pete Wilson, and were appointed this year by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to run the agency again.
Among the agency's duties is inspecting low-wage industries, such as farming, garment-making, restaurants and carwashes. It also inspects public-works projects to ensure contractors are paying prevailing union wages, usually at least $20 an hour.
During Gov. Gray Davis' administration, Bradshaw and Millan said, the agency focused on its public-works responsibility, which was important to Davis' union supporters, and left farmworkers without much protection.
"The Davis administration had different priorities," said Millan, who also teaches a Fresno Community College course on labor law to people who want to obtain their farm-labor contractor's license. "There was no field enforcement presence in Fresno when I was appointed."
In recent years, the vehicles that transport farmworkers have undergone a transformation, largely because of regulation enforcement by the California Highway Patrol.
Just a few of the vans stopped at the Kerman roadblock had no licenses. Ten years ago, "99% of them would have been unlicensed," said Bradshaw, and many vehicles had loose bench seats, no seat belts, loose tools and loose lug nuts.
"It shows what happens when you enforce the law," she said.
However, the story was different in the fields, where farm-labor contractors provide workers for the growers.
Contractors, Millan said, "are the necessary middlemen taking people looking for work and connecting them to available work. That has helped make the agriculture sector in California extremely productive."
Yet the industry has been beset by the temptation to cut corners when it comes to workers' rights. This grew, Millan said, as enforcement of farm-labor laws lapsed. The temptation is even stronger when many workers are vulnerable because they are not fluent in Spanish or English -- as is the case with the thousands of Mexican Indians who comprise a large portion of California's farm workforce.
In a vineyard a few miles from Kerman, a young man from Oaxaca named Juventino was cutting bunches of raisin grapes when authorities arrived for an inspection.
He told inspectors he had to buy his own grape knife. He wasn't too sure how much he was earning and he hadn't been paid in 16 days, though farmworkers, by law, must be paid every week. Nor was there drinking water nearby, he said.
The contractor who hired him, Salud Tapia, had been a farmworker for 11 years before becoming a contractor.
"He knows what he needs to do," said Millan, who remembered Tapia as a student in one of his farm-labor contractor classes. "It's sloppy."
Officers cited Tapia for a long list of violations that included nonpayment of wages.
Millan said they may move to revoke Tapia's contractor's license.
"We have to do it to send the lesson that we expect the farm-labor contractor to be responsible," he said.