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Deaths Rally Farm Laborers

Three men have died after working in the recent intense heat of the Central Valley, sparking a demand for more safeguards.

July 28, 2005|Mark Arax | Times Staff Writer

ARVIN, Calif. — There was no eulogy for Salud Zamudio-Rodriguez after his death in the fields here.

In the 24 years since he left his village in rural Mexico, family and co-workers said, he made but one lasting impression. Whether picking lemons in Riverside County, grapefruit in the Coachella Valley or oranges in Tulare County, he moved like a machine up and down the rows, they said.

But two weeks ago, in the 105-degree sun of a brutal July, he could not keep up with the tractor that was dictating his pace in a bell pepper field near this Kern County town.

Co-workers said that for more than two hours, the tractor doubled its speed in a dash to finish the last pick of one field so the grower could begin a fresh field the next morning.

Zamudio-Rodriguez, 42, was so spent that a few minutes before the shift ended on the afternoon of July 13, he broke away from the machine and collapsed.

As the others were boarding their vans to go home, he began to shake violently from heatstroke.

"We watched him dying in the field," said Soledad Reyes, 43, who had been working next to him.

The bell pepper field belonged to Donald Valpredo, a longtime cotton and vegetable grower in the Bakersfield area. Valpredo called the worker's death a tragedy. He declined to comment on allegations by the co-workers that the crew had been pushed to go faster.

"There's an investigation and we are trying to cooperate. I don't think it's fair for me to say anything else without all the facts," he said.

"What's proper for me to say is our sympathies and regrets go to his family and friends," he said.

Even before Zamudio-Rodriguez's funeral Saturday, two more farmworkers died in the fields of the San Joaquin Valley. Both had worked in temperatures of about 108 degrees. The body of a melon picker was found July 14 next to a patch of ripe cantaloupes in west Fresno County. The body of a grape picker was found a week later beneath the shade of a vine in Kern County.

Their deaths have come amid a statewide debate over a proposed law (AB 805) that would require growers to add rest periods and shade to protect farmworkers when temperatures rise above 95 degrees.

The bill generally pits Southern and Northern California legislators who favor the tougher regulations against Central Valley lawmakers who consider the proposals too burdensome for growers.

In his Saturday radio address, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger threw himself into the fray, calling on employers to voluntarily give workers breaks in the shade and train supervisors about heatstroke. Cal/OSHA, 15 years after first considering the death of a field hand in the heat, is developing a set of emergency regulations to accomplish those goals, though it probably will take a month to fully implement them.

Not surprisingly, the deaths have brought new energy to the United Farm Workers union, which held a march through Arvin on Friday night reminiscent of those in the 1960s and early 1970s when Cesar Chavez led a grape boycott and paralyzing labor strikes up and down the Central Valley.

Though it represents only a fraction of the grape pickers it once did, the union vows to use its organizing muscle and four radio stations statewide to press for higher wages and the passage of AB 805's tougher standards.

"It's not like the industry didn't have a warning," said UFW President Arturo Rodriguez. "Last year, after the death of Asuncion Valdivia from heatstroke, we sent letters to the major table grape growers. We asked them to take voluntary steps to deal with the heat.

"Not one grower responded to our call or implemented any changes."

Barry Bedwell, president of the California Grape and Tree Fruit League, said agriculture has not ignored the issue.

"For a year now, we've been holding seminars with growers, supervisors and workers on how to recognize and prevent heat-related illness," he said.

In the vast fields of Kern County, which stretch from the base of the Tehachapi Mountains to the outskirts of Delano 60 miles north, farmworkers talk about a few big growers who, they say, act with a kind of impunity. Rarely do state workplace regulators make their way into these fields, they say.

They pointed to Giumarra Vineyards, one of the largest table grape growers in the world, where the 53-year-old Valdivia died last July after working 10 hours in 100-degree heat. It was also a Giumarra vineyard where Augustine Gudino, 40, was found dead last week.

Farmworkers said Giumarra pushes its laborers to pick and pack at a fast pace and meet production quotas even in extreme heat. This season, they say, the pressure to harvest the grapes is even greater because the fruit, damaged by mildew, is deteriorating by the day.

It doesn't help that Giumarra is one of the few growers that requires its packers to work in the sun without umbrellas, they say.

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