California Tries to Reach Out To Punjabi Farmworkers

By Ketaki Gokhale, India West
Tuesday December 04, 2007

As a result of an investigative report by India-West on alleged safety and labor code violations at several Indian American-owned orchards in the Sacramento River valley, the California Agricultural Labor Relations Board plans to launch an outreach and education effort in the Indian American agricultural labor force. 

“We have to admit, we’ve had no contact with the workers from that community,” ALRB assistant general counsel Ed Blanco told India-West. “We had some contact with the (Indian American) growers involving some Mexican workers, but that was in 1990.” 

According to micro-data samples from the 2000 census, there are about 2,000 Punjabi farm laborers living in Sutter and neighboring Yuba County, and most of them spend at least a few months each year working in Punjabi-owned orchards. 

South Asian growers account for less than 1 percent of the farmers in the California, but records show that they have been the targets of 5 percent of civil actions 

Kulwant Johl, the president of the Yuba-Sutter County Farm Bureau, a trade association of farm owners, and the owner of over 900 acres of orchards, said Punjabi Americans make up approximately 15 percent of the local farm labor force. They cling to agricultural work, he said, because they lack the English language skills required for driving trucks or working in local stores. 

Records at the California Department of Pesticide Regulation indicate that Indian American growers have been found in violation of pesticide safety regulations more frequently than other growers in the state. 

According to USDA’s 2002 Census of Agriculture, South Asian growers account for less than one percent of the farmers in the California, but DPR records show that they have been the targets of five percent of civil actions brought by county agricultural commissioners for pesticide use violations over the past two years. Thirteen Indian American growers have paid field violation fines of over $15,000 in the past two years. 

Within the year, ALRB will begin holding general informational meetings at Mahal Plaza, a Yuba City housing complex for low-income farmworkers, with the goal of “letting workers know what their rights are,” Blanco said told India-West. 

ALRB, founded under the California Agricultural Labor Relations Act of 1975, aims to help farmworkers set up secret ballot elections to decide whether or not they wanted to be represented by labor unions; and also to combat unfair labor practices that pose a threat to collective bargaining. 

Blanco said that Punjabi farmworkers are likely to raise concerns about wage payment, overtime and access to healthcare, which do not fall under his agency’s purview. “If we hear of any violations or complaints of discrimination that don’t pertain to us, we’ll forward that on to the appropriate agency.” 

India-West accompanied an Employment Development Department outreach coordinator on a field visit to the Sierra Gold Nurseries in Yuba City, where a team of Punjabi laborers was observed grafting young cherry trees. While their Hispanic counterparts spoke openly to the official, the Punjabi workers were oddly reticent. 

“The farmers are giving us everything we need,” one man told India-West. “Everything is perfect. The government should do more, though. It should provide classes, do inspections and translate things into Punjabi.” 

Punjabi American farmworkers interviewed at their homes in Mahal Plaza agreed that state agencies are failing to provide adequate outreach and education, but they also went so far as to say that their work conditions are less than perfect. 

All the individuals interviewed reported that they have never been paid overtime wages, and several claimed to have had work-related injuries that they didn’t report for fear of being blacklisted by local labor contractors. 

Most people said that they were allowed to take two unpaid 15-minute breaks for eight to 10 hours of work. One woman accused Indian American growers of discriminating against the elderly and not providing their workers with adequate drinking water. 

Another woman, when asked whether she thinks Punjabi farmworkers know their health and safety rights, answered, “Something wrong could be happening, but we would never know it.” 

Blanco said ALRB would “move forward” based on what India-West has reported. He added, “It seems like there’s a real need for workers to know that their rights are, and as the agency that enforces those rights, we are going to be spearheading the effort.” 

ARLB, in a joint effort with Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, has been planning the outreach effort for the past month. 

“Our board and the governor’s office are all interested in becoming more effective,” Blanco said. “In the past our work was done with primarily Mexican and monolingual Spanish speakers. We recognize that there is a certain amount of diversity, and we really need to reach out. In this area with the Punjabis, and in Fresno, too, with the Hmong.” 

If ALRB officers determine that Indian American growers are engaging in unfair labor practices under the Agricultural Labor Relations Act, which includes anything from firing workers engaged in collective bargaining to listening in on lunch-time union meetings, then the agency could order an injunction and bring the parties involved into ALRB’s administrative court process. Blanco himself or ALRB general counsel Michael Lee will represent any farmworkers who file charges against their employers. 

“Most people are just looking for guidance, and we have to figure out a way of providing that,” Blanco said. “We can only go onto farms in certain situations—when we go through a case and win, or if workers want to form a union.” 

Most of the outreach to Punjabi American farmworkers will have to be carried out through community organizations, such as Sikh temples and social centers, and local advocacy groups. 

“One way or another, we’ll reach them,” Blanco assured. “We’ll be using a translator, and our materials will be translated into Punjabi.” 

Lee Pliscou, a lead attorney at the Marysville office of California Rural Legal Assistance, said the news is heartening. He added that CRLA, too, has brought a Punjabi-speaking legal intern on board, who has been holding informational sessions on pesticide safety. 

CRLA and ALRB will together launch an outreach effort in the Punjabi American community during next year’s pruning season in April and May. Although the sites of the outreach efforts have not as yet been finalized, they are sure to include Mahal Plaza. “I’ve also suggested bringing another person that people would want to talk to, like an immigration specialist who can talk about the citizenship process, or a person who does job skills training in computers or English,” Pliscou told India-West.