As the Woolsey and Hill wildfires blanketed the skies in smoke this week, most Southern Californians made an effort to stay indoors to avoid breathing in hazardous particulate matter, which has been linked to increased rates of asthma, heart failure, bronchitis, and other health issues. But for some farmworkers in the agricultural areas of Ventura County, staying inside simply wasn’t an option.
In a striking viral image captured by photographer Andy Holzman, pickers in Camarillo can be seen carrying on their work, harvesting crops beneath a sun obfuscated by smoke and haze. Lucas Zucker, policy director of the Oxnard-based Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy (CAUSE), says keeping workers in the field during these disasters is an all-too-common practice for area growers. “Some farms will call it a day and send the workers home,” says Zucker. “Others will actually speed up during fires because they are worried about the crops being damaged by the smoke and ash.”
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Farmworkers are particularly vulnerable during wildfires. Typically paid a piece rate (by the box or hour), most can’t afford to take time off or travel elsewhere to protect their health. “They really can’t do anything to make up for losing income in a disaster,” Zucker says. Those who are undocumented are exempt from federal disaster aid and are hit hard by the costs associated with fires, like home repair, medical expenses, and temporary housing.
According to Zucker, many are also urged to stay by site supervisors, who face pressure from corporate higher-ups. “I think we often imagine farms as a small-scale operation, where the farmer lives there,” he says. “The reality is a lot of farms are part of a big global supply chain, and they’ve got they’ve got contracts to meet with their distributors.”
CAUSE distributed respirator masks to about 15,000 workers that stayed in the fields during last year’s Thomas Fire. Though this week’s burns didn’t come nearly as close to Camarillo and Oxnard, volunteers still made an effort to pass out protective gear. Zucker says a few growers have started providing their own masks to workers—but they’ve also amped up resistance to volunteer presence. “Some ag industry associations have basically told growers not to not to allow volunteers on their private property to distribute masks,” Zucker says. “They often cite ‘food safety’ concerns. For us, worker safety and human safety is paramount to food safety.”
As the smoke clears, undocumented residents affected by the fire will be faced with the task of rebuilding homes or replacing lost items. CAUSE, along with several other Ventura and Santa Barbara-based grassroots organizations, are accepting donations through 805 Undocufund, which will help mitigate wildfire-related expenses in the coming weeks.
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