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Standing Up for Farmworkers

State officials are expected to severely limit hand-weeding in fields, a practice recognized as harmful to laborers.

September 23, 2004|Miriam Pawel | Times Staff Writer

At Cesar Chavez's funeral, his grandchildren placed on the altar a 12-inch tool known as el cortito, a relic of Chavez's crusade to ease the pain of farmworkers who stooped for hours as they yanked out weeds with the short-handled hoe.

California banned the tool in 1975, citing evidence that it caused debilitating back injuries. But by the time Chavez was buried in 1993, farmworkers in some fields were bending at even more unhealthy angles: The ban applied only to tools, so growers told workers to weed by hand instead.

After more than a decade of bitter debate, the state is expected today to prohibit hand-weeding on farms, with some exceptions, declaring the practice an immediate danger to the health of thousands of laborers.

The regulation would require most employers to prove the commonly used long-handled hoes would not work before having workers weed or thin plants by hand for any sustained length of time. Organic farms and plants grown in tubs would be exempt.

"It's a daily reality for farmworkers that has gone on way too long being completely unregulated," said Mike Meuter, lead attorney in the Salinas office of California Rural Legal Assistance, which took the short-handled hoe case to the state Supreme Court and has led the push for restrictions on hand-weeding.

Agricultural groups said the wording appeared to give them enough flexibility. "We're going to have to live with it," said Rob Roy, president of the Ventura County Agriculture Assn. and a participant in negotiations on the issue for years. "It goes a long way toward eliminating unnecessary hand-weeding."

No one knows how prevalent the practice is right now. But the debate harks back to the historic and emotional fight over el cortito, "the short one." Farmworkers hated the tool because it caused crippling pain and also was an instrument of control: Anyone who rested by standing up was immediately visible and risked losing their job.

In 1993, a Cal/OSHA medical committee concluded that prolonged hand-weeding caused the same debilitating back injuries that doctors associated with the short hoe. Since then, multiple attempts to reach consensus on legislation or a regulation have failed.

The compromise expected to be approved today by the California Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board came at the insistence of Senate President Pro Tem John Burton (D-San Francisco), who agreed to broad changes in the state's workers' compensation program earlier this year only after Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said his administration would mediate the hand-weeding dispute.

Jose Millan, the deputy labor secretary who brokered the agreement, said the key was assuring growers that it did not presage a ban on harvesting by hand, and clarifying for farmworker advocates that employers would have to prove there was no acceptable substitute if questioned by Cal/OSHA.

Like most debates about the state's role in regulating the multibillion-dollar business of agriculture, hand-weeding is fraught with symbolic as well as practical significance.

Growers see it as yet one more move that chips away at their ability to compete with farmers outside California who are subject to fewer restrictions. "For the industry, it's taking away another tool," said Roy.

"Even though hand-weeding is one issue, there are thousands of other issues here in the state that are making us uncompetitive," said Edward Ortega, a strawberry grower in Watsonville who heads the Santa Cruz Farm Bureau.

Ortega, who farms both conventional and organic fields, said he would have to absorb the cost of increasing breaks 10 minutes a day, required under the regulation for those engaged in hand-weeding. "Any regulation put on agriculture cannot be passed on to the consumer," he said. "The consumer doesn't care where the product is coming from. They only care how cheap it is."

Labor advocates see it as part of a pattern in which farm employers resist change and predict economic ruin, only to find viable alternatives when forced to protect workers. They point to an interview a week after the ban on short hoes went into effect in 1975 in which Robert Antle, whose lettuce firm had fought the ban in court, said he felt chagrined because production had actually increased when workers switched to standard long-handled hoes.

"The reason they changed was because they were forced to, and if you don't force them to, they won't," said Hector De La Rosa, a community worker with the legal assistance organization for more than 30 years and one of the first to agitate against the short-handled hoe.

The impact of the regulation will depend on how Cal/OSHA interprets the provision that allows weeding by hand as a last resort.

Cal/OSHA will enforce the ban primarily by responding to complaints, which it is required to do. Many of those will come from the legal assistance organization, which plans to focus initially on clear-cut cases "where there's no reason, no excuse, it's not industry standard, it's not a close call," Meuter said.

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