Unsafe transport leads to death: Farmworkers 'disposable'?

AP News
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Posted: Dec 22, 2016 12:56 PM
Unsafe transport leads to death: Farmworkers 'disposable'?

Jose Rangel Chavez and 18 other Mexican guest workers were dozing as their bus hurtled down Interstate 40 in a light rain. After nine months away from home, the 22-year-old was about to complete a meandering round trip of nearly 5,000 miles.

They were just north of Little Rock, Arkansas, about a half day's hard ride from the border, when the motor coach struck a concrete bridge support, peeling back the roof like a sardine can. Chavez and five others were killed; seven more workers were severely injured.

The crash in November 2015 was the result of chronic problems within an American agriculture industry dependent upon a reliable supply of low-wage, foreign-born workers. Chavez and the others were part of an annual mass migration made possible partly by a guarantee of free and safe transportation to and from the fields each day and, at season's end, back home to their loved ones.

But for many, that transportation is neither free nor safe.

It has been just over a half-century since the nation's worst fatal vehicle accident killed nearly three dozen migrants, a horror that farmworker advocates had hoped would bring lasting reforms. Yet, due to enforcement gaps and the sometimes callous attitudes of those who contract for the workers, laborers continue to ride in overloaded, poorly maintained, uninsured vehicles — often driven by a fellow crew member without a proper license, or with no license at all.

The Associated Press found more than a dozen accidents that left at least 38 dead and nearly 200 injured just since January 2015. The casualties included a 4-year-old and a 5-year-old, traveling with migrant worker parents.

Grim as it is, the AP's tally is almost certainly a significant undercount.

"I think there's more unregistered, improperly insured, unsafe transportation out there for farmworkers than ... 20 years ago," says attorney Greg Schell, deputy director of Southern Migrant Legal Services.

A big reason, he and others contend: Rarely are those who profit most from this cheap labor made to pay. Instead, it is the families of people like Jose Chavez who lose.

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In exchange for tending the landowner's animals in their remote mountain village, the Chavez family got the use of a leaky wooden shack. Jose wanted more for his parents and siblings, so he signed on to do farm labor in the United States.

Of the 1.1 million farmworkers in the U.S., 71 percent are foreign-born, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Nearly half of those acknowledge working here illegally.

Chavez's employer, Vasquez Citrus & Hauling of Lake Placid, Florida, is one of thousands taking part in the federal H-2A guest worker visa program. In addition to wages of $11.56 an hour, contractor Juan Vasquez would provide Chavez room, board and, crucially, a guarantee of free transportation from Mexico and back .

Whenever he could, Chavez dutifully wired money home. Then, on Nov. 6, 2015, tragedy struck.

Investigators allege that the bus wasn't registered with the Labor Department — meaning the company was not authorized to use it to transport workers. The driver did not have a commercial operator's license.

Schell, who's been working with the victims' families, says Vasquez should have had liability insurance of around $5 million, but that he carried only one-fifth that amount. The company's workers' compensation policy did not cover the journey home.

In the two years prior to the crash, Vasquez Citrus had been cited 22 times for alleged violations, from underage drivers to vehicles with worn tires, according to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. The Labor Department had cited Juan Vasquez for failure to provide safe vehicles back in 2007, but issued no fines.

Lori Flores, a professor at Stony Brook University, calls the regulatory apparatus "an honor system."

"And it's only when accidents ... happen that agencies might get involved," she says. "But then it's way too late."

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On Sept. 17, 1963, a makeshift bus carrying 58 migrant workers was struck by a freight train outside Chualar, California. Thirty-two workers died.

In the wake of Chualar, Congress passed a law requiring contractors to provide proof of liability insurance and to inform workers about housing, wages and transportation. Two decades later, lawmakers enacted the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act, or MSPA, which, among other requirements, mandates that agricultural employers show that transportation is properly insured and meets safety standards.

More than 10,000 farm labor contractors are registered under MSPA, but Labor's Wage and Hour Division has just 976 investigators to police them, plus the millions of other businesses covered by the laws it enforces.

That lack of manpower, combined with often minor penalties for infractions, encourages people to cut corners, farmworker advocates say.

"... (Y)ou end up saving money by just paying the fine and treating the farmworkers as disposable," says Dawson Morton of the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation.

Violators are "aided and abetted" by the fact that most workers are too afraid of dismissal or deportation to complain, Schell says. Often, a record of non-compliance is discovered only after a crash.

This July 2, police say a 1979 school bus carrying dozens of Haitian farmworkers and family members blew through a flashing red light near the town of St. Marks, Florida, and was struck by a tractor-trailer. The truck driver and three on the bus were killed.

Unsecured seats were among 25 violations cited in post-accident inspections of farm labor contractor Billy R. Evans' fleet. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration called the Belle Glade, Florida, contractor "an imminent risk of serious injury or death," and ordered him off the roads.

The case remains under investigation. Neither Evans nor the driver responded to AP's calls for comment.

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Most growers don't provide transportation to their remote fields. So, many workers fall prey to so-called "raiteros," who illegally charge desperate workers often exorbitant fees for unregulated transportation.

Two recent California cases show the challenges regulators face when trying to assign responsibility for an accident.

On Jan. 9, 2015, four men returning from the fields died when their overloaded van plowed into a tractor-trailer in Fresno County. Investigators concluded that the driver was a foreman for C.A.T. Labor Services, and Labor moved to revoke the firm's certification .

Company attorney Anthony Raimondo insists the driver, who pleaded no contest in March to manslaughter, was solely responsible for this "horrible tragedy," and that the accusations against his client were "paperwork violations."

In another case, four farmworkers, including a 16-year-old girl, died when the van they were in crashed on June 20, 2015, in Merced County. Police say the unlicensed driver fell asleep at the wheel.

This August, Labor's San Francisco office filed suit against grower Valley Garlic Inc. and contractor, X-Treme Ag Labor Inc., citing a 1997 federal court ruling that rejected the view that growers who use labor contractors have no responsibility themselves to make sure workers travel safely.

Both companies have denied wrongdoing . Janet Herold, West Regional Solicitor for the Department of Labor, says these legal actions are a message to the agricultural community that "we are going to change tools until you change practices."

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In the crash that killed Jose Chavez, Labor Department inspectors recommended more than $500,000 in civil penalties, according to a draft settlement obtained by AP. A review knocked that recommendation down to $2,000.

Federal investigations continue. Despite that, Vasquez was authorized visas for nearly 350 guest workers this past year. The company did not reply to AP requests for comment.

Meanwhile, lawyers are wrangling over how to divide the limited insurance proceeds.

Jose's wages helped his parents build a small but sturdy two-room concrete house. They had to borrow money to bury him.

Sitting before a portrait of her oldest boy, Maria Felix Chavez Martinez weeps.

"He was our only option," she says. "The only hope we had."

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AP Writer Olga R. Rodriguez in San Francisco contributed to this report.