Flames, smoke and heat: California grape workers push for change | Climate change news

Santa Rosa, California – In late September, residents of Sonoma County, one of the famous wine-growing areas, received emergency warnings: The Fremont Fire was ignited, sending plumes of smoke across the arid, brown landscape and threatening nearby vineyards during peak grape harvest time.

When he heard about the fire, Sebastian Alavez Gaspar, who picks grapes during the harvest, feared losing work. “If the boss loses his crop, we will not eat because we have no money,” he told Al Jazeera in Spanish via WhatsApp.

However, firefighters kept the fire under control the next day, and the following week Gaspar was called in to harvest grapes. But the wildfire highlighted the insecurity of the 41-year-old’s job, along with the jobs of some 11,000 grape workers in Sonoma County, and amid record heat waves and fires fueled by climate change, system change is needed to better protect workers, according to workers’ advocates.

“We need more protection; we don’t feel supported. If we lose weeks of work, there has to be help for rent or food,” said Gaspar, explaining that his job is becoming more dangerous as the wildfires increase in frequency and intensity.

“We are constantly concerned about the fire hazard. Now it’s even scarier to hear that the chances of that will be higher. But we also understand the urgency of the growers about the need to bring in the harvest.”

Tourist center

Since 2017, forest fires have swept Sonoma County and neighboring wine-producing provinces with increasing cruelty.

Climate change contributes to a longer, more intense wildfire season, which coincides perfectly with the annual grape harvest from August to October in Northern California, where locally produced wine attracts tourists from all over the world.

The region is filled with vast fields of vines that are diligently manicured by thousands of workers. Crossroads in wine country contain clusters of white arrows giving direction tourists to the vineyards. But in recent years, new signs have surfaced: “Beware! Risk area: Recent fires make this area prone to flash floods and mudslides.”

Fires have damaged winemaking vats and tanks in Santa Rosa, Northern California’s famed wine region [File: Ben Margot/AP Photo]

Smoke from recent fires has spoiled grapes and flames have burned through vineyards, forcing many to close. While vineyards can take out insurance, grape workers don’t have a backup plan; if they refuse to pick grapes in dangerous conditions, they will not make any money. If the grapes are spoiled by smoke, there is no work for them.

The fires have also forced provinces and the state to create a patchwork of new policies aimed at helping vineyards and workers alike — but some policies are endangering workers’ lives in favor of profit, according to Teresa Romero. chairman of the United Farm Workers union.

“Anytime you endanger people’s lives for profit, it’s wrong. Unfortunately, it happens day in and day out in the lives of farm workers,” Romero told Al Jazeera.

Evacuation zones

In 2017, when fires broke out in Sonoma County, the county’s Department of Agriculture created a system for vineyard owners and workers to enter evacuation zones to access their properties and care for their crops and animals. The policy allows vineyard owners to send workers to evacuation zones to pick grapes.

To apply for “Verification of Commercial Farming Activities for Temporary Restricted Access”, owners must complete a form describing the “critical and essential” tasks they must perform on their property. The county’s agriculture commissioner sends the form to the sheriff, who grants them access.

The form includes a waiver of liability stating that the applicant is solely responsible for the people he sends to a wildfire evacuation zone, and he will not sue the county for injuries or losses. Sonoma awarded hundreds of these passes in 2020, according to data reviewed by Al Jazeera.

Firefighters struggle to contain wildfires in California wine country, exacerbated by drought [File: Robert Galbraith/Reuters]

Maria, a grape worker who refused to use her last name for fear of losing her job, said her employer had taken her to an evacuation zone in 2020 to pick grapes. She said they had to ask permission from police and firefighters to let them into the evacuation zone. While she was picking grapes, she said the area around the farm was on fire.

“I was very scared,” she said in Spanish through a United Farm Workers representative and translator. “Even with masks it was challenging to breathe,” she told Al Jazeera. “We would take them off because we needed help.”

Sonoma’s Agriculture Commissioner Andrew Smith turned down an interview request from Al Jazeera and did not respond to questions about the policy.

In an interview with Reveal, Smith said the economy would take a hit if farmers stopped working every time a fire broke out. “That sends a huge ripple effect through the local and even beyond the local economy. Farming doesn’t stop because Mother Nature gives us a bad hand,’ he said.

Health effects

Maria and Gaspar said they feared health effects from smoke exposure; wildfire smoke contains dangerous particles that harm the respiratory and cardiovascular systems and can cause premature death, according to a recent study.

On Sept. 27, Governor Gavin Newsom signed into law Assembly Bill 73, the Farmworker Wildfire Smoke Protections Act, which would give workers better access to N-95 masks, requires the state to publish wildfire safety guidelines for farm workers, and obliges employers to provide training for farm workers. about these guidelines in their first language.

But Gaspar said N-95 masks are not enough.

In 2020, when several large fires ignited and burned in the vineyards in Sonoma, a vineyard owner called on him to harvest grapes; thick smoke had settled over the vines, which can spoil the taste of grapes, but the owner got test results that said they weren’t spoiled yet, Gaspar told Al Jazeera.

Experts say farm workers need disaster insurance to cover potential hazards to their health and livelihoods [File: Lucy Nicholson/Reuters]

Gaspar said he worked day and night for a week. During the harvest, he is paid by the number of grapes he picks, not by the hour, so he worked as fast as he could. He sends part of his wages to his sick mother in Oaxaca, Mexico to pay her health care bills.

The vineyard owner gave him cold Gatorade and an N-95 mask for the smoke, but it was hot and hard to breathe, so he took off his mask. His eyes were bloodshot and his throat was burning. “The masks are a joke,” he said. “We need breathing apparatus like the firefighters have.”

California also has heat regulations that state that if the temperature rises above 35 degrees Celsius (95 Fahrenheit), managers must give employees a break, but this rule is difficult to enforce.

“The laws in the books are not the laws in the fields,” Romero told Al Jazeera.

She said there has been insufficient labor law enforcement in California in the past, adding that the state should hire more inspectors and also protect farm workers who risk their jobs to report violations. “It’s not just about taking bills, it’s making sure they’re enforced,” she said.

Demands of the workers

On a hot September afternoon, Margarita Garcia, a Mixteco Indigenous farm worker and community leader from Tlaxiaco, Oaxaca, relaxed in her kitchen in Santa Rosa, a city of 179,000 in the heart of Sonoma County, after working all night growing grapes. to harvest.

Max Bell Alper, executive director of North Bay Jobs with Justice, a grassroots coalition of groups organizing workers on the front lines of climate change, sat across from Garcia at her counter and translated. Garcia and Bell Alper team up to push for protection for grape workers, and they have held regular meetings with workers.

“Every meeting more people come and we get stronger,” Garcia said.

Wearing an N-95 during a grape harvest feels like running up a mountain with a mask on, Garcia said, and giving masks to workers doesn’t solve the industry’s underlying structural problems. “If the smoke is bad, we have to stop working,” she said.

That’s why workers need disaster insurance, Bell Alper said. “The reality is that people have the economic need and they are going to work unless there is a system that allows them to be paid,” he said.

Jobs With Justice recently surveyed 100 grape workers to find out what they would need in the event of a fire. Their top priority was access to safety and evacuation training and other information in languages ​​they understand; not all workers speak Spanish and many speak native languages.

Workers also said they wanted disaster insurance for loss of income due to wildfires, community safety observers who would be sent when state authorities can’t enforce the rules, risk payments for working during wildfires, and clean bathrooms and water. Under California law, toilets and drinking water must be clean, but workers said they are often dirty.

Workers need fundamental change, Garcia said, and that’s what they’re pushing for. “If a tree always gives bad apples, we have to pull this tree up by the roots,” she said.

Margarita Garcia, an indigenous farm worker and Mixteco community leader, says workers need fundamental change [Hilary Beaumont/Al Jazeera]

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