What is the life of a farm worker worth? Is it less than the life of any other human being?
The death of Juan Manuel Ochoa is hard to accept because it might have been prevented.
Friday, July 5, was a hot day. The official temperature was 106 degrees; inside the lemon orchard near Richgrove where Juan Manuel and his brother, Alejandro, worked it was probably hotter.
Juan Manuel had immigrated to the valley from Michoacán. He had labored for nearly a year as an irrigator for Farms.
He had worked that day since early in the morning.
Despite the high heat, there was no water at all.
There was no shade.
Apparently there was no training for foremen or workers or an emergency plan in place on what the company should do if workers became ill from the heat.
Cal-OSHA, the state work safety agency, said the grower ignored many of the protections demanded by the state of California since 2005. That’s when the United Farm Workers convinced the state to issue the first regulation in the country to prevent deaths and illnesses from extreme heat.
When Alejandro found Juan Manuel face down in the dirt in the afternoon heat, alive but unresponsive, he ran to his truck—parked at least a mile away—to get help. Then the foreman came out, and finally summoned the paramedics.
By the time the paramedics arrived and said Juan Manuel had died, it was at least an hour after Alejandro had found his brother face down on the ground.
The state shut down Etchegaray Farms for breaking the law.
“Unfortunately, for my cousin it is a little bit too late,” said Luis Ochoa, the cousin of Juan Manuel.
Later, the state let the company reopen.
Now it is hard for Juan Manuel’s family in this country—his two brothers and two sisters, his father and other relatives—to accept his death, knowing it might have been prevented if the grower had obeyed the law.
This is not the first time a farm worker has needlessly died from the heat. More than two-dozen more farm workers perished from the heat since 2005, when the union convinced the state to issue the heat regulation to prevent such deaths. If the grower had followed the law, Juan Manuel might be alive today.
Too often the laws on the books are not the laws in the fields.
* * *
Nearly forty years ago, 19 lettuce workers died in the tragic crash of a farm labor bus. Then, Cesar Chavez said some people ask if these deaths are deliberate.
“They are deliberate,” Cesar said, “in the sense that they are the direct result of a farm labor system that treats workers like agricultural implements and not as human beings. These accidents happen because employers and labor contractors treat us as if we were not important human beings.”
But farm workers “are important human beings,” Cesar continued during a funeral mass for the dead workers.
They are important because they are from us. We cherish them. We love them. We will miss them.
They are important because of the love they gave to their husbands, their children, their wives, their parents—all those who were close to them and who needed them.
They are important because of the work they do. They are not implements to be used and discarded. They are human beings who sweat and sacrifice to bring food to the tables of millions…of people throughout the world.
They are important because God made them, gave them life, and cares for them in life and death.
Brothers and sisters, Juan Manuel was not an agricultural implement; he was an important human being. He dedicated himself to helping his family. He earned the love of his father, his brothers and sisters, and other loved ones.
Juan Manuel’s life was worth a lot—and he deserved a lot better treatment than he received at the hands of the grower.
* * *
Like all of us, Juan Manuel had only one life and now it is gone. But how do we, the living, affirm that Juan Manuel’s life was important and that he didn’t die in vain?
We can use the grief that today fills our hearts with sorrow to tell our governor and our state that the growers and the labor contractors must honor the law—so more innocent farm workers like Juan Manuel don’t die unnecessarily. We can force the employers to treat our loved ones as the important human beings they are.
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