Hidden Horrors

California Dairy Workers Face Danger and Abuse

R.M. Arrieta

This article is from the September/October 2004 issue of Dollars and Sense: The Magazine of Economic Justice available at http://www.dollarsandsense.org

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This article is from the September/October 2004 issue of Dollars & Sense magazine.

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Lorenzo Bravo Salgado, 35, can barely walk. He used to work at Soares Dairy in Turlock, California, until a cow he was milking kicked him in the chest. Bravo fell backwards and broke a disc in his back.

"I started to black out. I started urinating blood," says Bravo. "I told the patrón [dairy owner] what happened, but he told me if I didn't want to work, there were plenty of others who would."

Bravo says he regularly worked from 11 p.m. to 11 a.m., and then would turn around and work from 2 p.m. to 8 p.m. "It was a choice of eating or sleeping," he says. "If I slept I didn't eat, if I ate, I didn't sleep."

His co-worker Juan Carrillo, 37, reports that he was paid no overtime and was given only one day off a week. If he was sick, he had to pay for it. "[Soares] made me sign a contract saying I would pay a fine of $50 a day if I didn't come to work."

Not all of California's 2,300 dairies-many of them, like Soares, family-owned-violate health and safety standards and treat their workers inhumanely; still, such conditions are the norm for hundreds of workers in California's dairy industry. Exploitative dairies pay workers barely enough to eat; force them to work 12 to 16 hours a day, six or seven days a week; deny workers meal breaks; and withhold overtime pay. Some abuse workers both physically and verbally; many expose employees to safety hazards on the job and house employees in rundown buildings onsite.

"These are extremely vulnerable workers," says Roy Chernus, executive director of Legal Aid of the North Bay. "We are always on the lookout for wage and hour cases and overtime violations. Some of the [living] conditions are horrendous. Doors without locks, exposure to the elements, leaky roofs, no windows or windows boarded over. Infestation of vermin. They look like third world slums … out in beautiful west Marin."

The state agencies charged with enforcing labor, housing, and safety laws have neglected California dairy workers; advocates lack the funds to collect data, publicize the abuses, and push for better laws and enforcement. As a result, some dairy owners continue to evade existing laws, and abused workers slip through the cracks.

"We know it's a serious problem," says David Brigode, director of fair housing for Sonoma County, "but it's difficult to get information. No one really knows the scope of this. No one has paid a big chunk of money [to study it] ... the powers that be would prefer not to see the [industry's] reputation sullied."

Dairy workers milk, feed, and breed the cows, clean the corrals, and generally maintain the herds and tend to their health. Without them, there is no milk. Even so, "the commercials are all [the milk consumer sees]-that's it," says Alfredo Sanchez, community worker with the Santa Rosa office of California Rural Legal Assistance (CRLA), a farmworker advocacy group. "The dairy industry makes billions of dollars, but you never hear about the conditions of the worker."

The grueling conditions became so unbearable for Bravo, Carrillo, and other current and former employees of Soares Dairy that they took action. With CRLA's help, these workers are suing dairy owners Germano and Jacinta Soares for violating the state minimum wage law and failing to pay overtime-though Carrillo, the suit states, worked "no less than 69 hours a week, and Bravo worked no less than 75 hours a week." According to Saul Garcia of CRLA, the Soareses are denying any liability. Fred Silva, the Soares' attorney, did not return calls for this article.

California's Cash Cow

Drive along Interstates 101, 99, and 5, and you'll see rolling hills and abundant vegetation, quaint rain-washed barns, family farms and grand old homes kept spotlessly painted, churches, schools, and small stores. The Central Valley, where most of California's dairies are located, is the most productive agricultural area in the state. Fields of tomatoes, pears, grapes, peaches, almonds, sugar beets, apples, asparagus, pears, alfalfa, and other fruits and vegetables cut swaths across some 300 miles through the center of the state. And it is here that milk is king. The California dairy industry's income outpaced that of its nearest rival-grapes-by more than half a billion dollars in 2002. We're talking big money.

Dairy products are the second largest industry in California. In 2002, according to a study done on behalf of the California Milk Advisory Board (CMAB), the state's dairy industry generated almost 258,000 full-time jobs, and dairy-associated economic activity amounted to $35.1 billion. California leads the nation in total milk production, producing approximately 19% of the nation's milk supply, according to the California Department of Food and Agriculture. The CMAB study projects that by 2012, the state's milk production will grow by 31%.

Expensive ad campaigns-to the tune of $37 million annually at the California Milk Advisory Board (CMAB)-tout and polish the wholesome image of milk and cheese. In the CMAB's "Happy Cow" campaign, happy cows dance, talk, and sing the praises of being a dairy cow in California. And who hasn't seen, on the pages of slick magazines, the national "Got Milk?" ads featuring celebrities adorned with milk mustaches, marketed in California by the California Milk Processor Board? These campaigns are designed to leave consumers feeling good about what they buy.

Few state agencies are willing to disturb the state's cash cow-or tarnish its carefully polished image. But three years ago, the deaths of two workers forced the state to toughen its safety inspections of the dairy industry in the Central Valley. On February 22, 2001, Enrique Araiza, 29, and Jose Alatorre, 24, drowned in cow manure at the bottom of a sump pump at the Aguiar-Faria & Sons dairy in Gustine, Merced County. (Sump pumps move the water that flushes waste out of dairy barns into manure lagoons.)

Araiza was overcome by fumes when he went down into the 30-foot pit to try to fix a stoppage. Standing knee-deep in manure, he fell face-down after breathing in methane gas emitted by the liquid waste. His co-worker Alatorre went after Araiza to try to rescue him. Both men died.

Aguiar-Faria dairy manager and part-owner Patrick J. Faria, 52, and foreman Alcino Sousa Nunes, 45, were accused of causing the deaths, and each faced two counts of involuntary manslaughter, plus charges of health and safety violations. They were set to face trial in April 2004, but early that month the manslaughter charges against Nunes were dropped, and he pled no contest to a labor code violation. He faces three years probation. He will serve no jail time, nor will he have to pay any restitution.

"When everything went bad, another worker went to get Nunes. [Nunes] went back and was helping try to get the workers out. He will be haunted by [their deaths] for the rest of his life," says his attorney Michael Fagalde.

Meanwhile, co-defendant Faria's case has not been resolved. His jury trial was moved to June 22, then September 9. He faces up to four years in prison if convicted.

On August 21, 2001, the state Occupational Safety and Health Administration (Cal OSHA) fined the Aguiar-Faria dairy $166,650, which the dairy appealed. The agency is still processing that appeal, three years later. To date, the dairy has paid no penalties for the incident or restitution to the workers' families.

"After the high-profile 2001 deaths, there was a move to enforce safety [in] the dairy industry, and we went in the dairies unannounced," to conduct inspections, says Cal OSHA spokesman Dean Fryer. That year, the agency inspected 80 dairies and levied $708,930 in fines for 291 safety violations.

The 2001 safety sweep irked some dairy owners, but with Cal OSHA's outreach to industry associations, "dairy owners came around, realizing that this was an important issue," says Fryer.

The realization did not last. A year and a half after the Aguiar-Faria incident, an employee of Turlock Irrigation Construction died in much the same way as Araiza and Alatorre. On August 27, 2002, Sergio Ortiz was trying to repair a flow gate near the base of a 12-foot-deep manure pit at the Rego Dairy in Gustine when he was overcome by methane gas. Cal OSHA officials say Ortiz did not have safety equipment or protective gear and was not properly trained for the job. The agency fined Turlock Irrigation Construction $116,500. The company is appealing the fine.

Despite continued violations, by last year the number of Cal OSHA safety inspections at dairies plummeted to eight, resulting in a mere $36,050 in fines. This year, there have been no inspections. Explains Fryer, "We've stepped back to give the industry a chance to come into compliance and … take steps on their own to improve their safety programs."

By contrast, Cal OSHA has, since 1994, conducted a serious program of unannounced inspections targeting the garment industry, which, like the dairy industry, has a history of labor code violations and large scale employment of Latin American immigrants. In 2001, Cal OSHA inspected 1,180 garment manufacturers and issued 690 citations. Penalties assessed came to $3,001,552. The numbers for 2002 and 2003 are similar.

Cal OSHA has maintained consistent pressure on the garment industry for the past decade. But after one year of "random focused" inspections in the dairy industry, somebody called off the dogs. Did Cal OSHA act on its own, or under the pressure of strong lobbying and angry phone calls by the dairy industry? Why does it seem that health, safety, and wage problems among garment workers draw the attention of the agency but workers with similar, and often worse, problems in the dairy industry are virtually ignored?

To hear some representatives of the dairy industry tell it, there's no problem at all-and if there is, it's the worker's own fault. Dairy representatives like Michael Marsh, CEO of Western United Dairymen, an industry association, deny that there are wage, housing, or health and safety problems in the dairy industry. Marsh claims that even if worker housing were substandard, "the employee could negotiate with an employer a different wage that would allow them to live someplace else if they chose." To the suggestion that some workers might be reluctant to negotiate because they might be undocumented immigrants, Marsh replied, "Did you talk to any 'illegals?' You know that's against the law. No one is allowed to hire undocumented people."

It may be against the law to hire them, but CLRA's Garcia says that the vast majority of California dairy workers are undocumented. Yet groups like CLRA are permitted to represent only those who are documented, meaning they are lawful, permanent residents and hold green cards.

Workers Stand Up

Even though they stand to lose their jobs and their housing, and might even be deported, dairy workers are beginning to fight back-and sometimes win.

On April 15, dairy owners Anthony and Renee Silveira reached a $150,000 settlement with a group of their workers over substandard housing and wage and other labor violations. San Francisco attorney Mark Talamantes filed the complaint on behalf of Gerardo Padilla and about a dozen other workers at the Silveiras' dairy. The suit stated that Padilla worked as a milker seven days a week, 10 hours a day, getting only two days off per month. None of the workers, according to the suit, were allowed meal breaks or rest periods, nor were they paid overtime. According to records of an inspection by the state Department of Housing and Community Development, buildings used to house Padilla and the other workers featured, among other things, exposed electrical wires, holes in the walls and floors, rotted wood, leaky plumbing, and raw sewage draining into the yard.

"Part of the settlement," says Talamantes, "includes fixing all the housing within the next 18 months and making it habitable." The settlement "is a huge victory," says Talamantes. "It will send a message to the surrounding dairies that workers can get representation and can recover their wages [and] can make these dairies be responsible for the housing."

Talamantes was successful in another dispute over dairy-worker housing last year. Charles and Tony Spaletta, of Petaluma, agreed to pay $235,000 in a settlement with eight former herders and dairy production workers at the Cypress Lane Ranch.

The workers claimed the housing the Spalettas provided was filthy and rundown. "The housing was deplorable," says Talamantes. "There were mushrooms growing on the carpets, holes in the roof. When they went to the employer and asked him to fix it they were fired."

Says Talamantes, "For so long these dairies have been able to get a way with exploiting their workers and treating them like animals."

Read the side of a carton of Clover Stornetta Farms milk, and it will inform you that no other milk pool in California can match Clover's record for good treatment of its cows. Clover Stornetta buys milk from 16 family-run dairies in Sonoma, Marin, and Mendocino counties and distributes it to high-end markets and small specialty stores in northern California. According to spokeswoman Maria McGlochlin, Clover Stornetta ensures that the families who supply their milk are "stewards of their farm lands."

It would seem McGlochlin assumes that Clover Stornetta dairies' good stewardship of their lands extends to good stewardship of their workers. She seemed disturbed and surprised to hear allegations of worker mistreatment at McCall Dairy in Sonoma County-one of Clover Stornetta's suppliers.

One worker at McCall alleges the owner often hit him on the shoulders and legs with a riding crop if, in the owner's judgment, he was not working fast enough. "We have been called 'stupid and lazy people who aren't worth anything,'" according to one worker interviewed. "They make us sign our timecards [but] don't let us see the hours we are signing for," another worker stated.

During a visit to a building housing six workers on the McCall property, rodents and roaches could be seen scurrying across the decaying floor. "The patrón's wife comes in unannounced and inspects the kitchen," said one worker. Another worker said, "they also deduct from our checks for trash but they don't let us empty our trash in the main garbage bin on the ranch, they make us take it to the dump."

Said Clover Stornetta's McGlochlin, "We like to be responsive if we hear something amiss. I don't like to hear that sort of thing going on."

Indeed, after learning about the alleged mistreatment, McGlochlin arranged a meeting between the workers, the owners of McCall Dairy, and Clover Stornetta CEO Gary Imm. After the meeting, Imm responded to the allegations of mistreatment in an e-mail letter, "If there is a question of social injustice on one of these dairies then we accept our responsibility. We will take those actions that are within our authority and good conscience."

He then proceeded to downplay the whippings: "There is one employee who has a long tenure who has developed what [the dairy owners] characterized as a playful relationship with one of the owners... ." Rather than abuse, "the list of accusations, however inaccurate or exaggerated … points to a complete breakdown in communications between owners and employees" that can be attributed at least in part to the language barrier. Finally, Imm wrote, "Per your request, we have been assured by the owners that there will be no recrimination [against workers] from anything that was discussed at the meeting."

There would be no recrimination against McCall Dairy, either, and little change in conditions there. According to one worker, contacted after the meeting between the McCalls and Imm, although the dairy has hired a translator, the owner "still yells at us and calls us bad names. We get no breaks at all or meal rest. We eat as we work. And the [boss' wife] still does not show us our timecards, we just sign them." When asked about the worker who allegedly gets hit with a riding crop, the worker insisted it still goes on. As do the threats. "The owner still tells us 'if you don't do your work I'm going to call the sheriff.'"

"I think that [in] all the cases I've seen, there's consistently a problem with underpaying workers, providing them with inadequate housing, and forcing them to work overtime without pay and to work in unsafe conditions," says CRLA's Saul Garcia in Modesto. "There's an attitude that workers are easily disposable and easily replaced. To me, that's the common thread-there's this perception that these workers are throwaways. We see time and time again if a worker is injured, he gets fired, if he complains about his wages he gets fired. The root of the problem is that there is simply a lack of respect for the workers."

For now, the efforts of dairy workers and their supporters remain small and reactive. Community workers at CRLA provide informational pamphlets regarding workers' rights in the dairy industry, but CRLA is not involved in any organizing. For many California dairy workers, their immigration status, combined with the fact that they live in company housing on the land where they work, inhibits activism, leaving them isolated-and vulnerable to employer retribution.

R.M. Arrieta is a George Washington Williams Fellow for the Independent Press Association.

Resources: For more information about California's dairy workers: California Rural Legal Assistance 800-413-4567; The Worker Safety Project at the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation 916-446-7904; Labor Commissioner's Office in Sacramento 916-263-1811.

This story was produced under the George Washington Williams Fellowship for Journalists of Color, a project sponsored by the Independent Press Association.