July 31, 2021

Seasonal worker dies in heatwave sparks emotion in Oregon

Interrupted in their picking, the two women look away. It was here that Sebastian Francisco Perez, one of 107 Oregon extreme heat wave victims, worked. This July 5, the heatwave is slack – only 29 ° C on the thermometer – but they are heavily dressed. Whatever the temperature, it is the “uniform” of agricultural workers: hat, hood, mask against toxic fumes, gloves against juices that irritate the skin, long pants, closed shoes against snakes… And, yes, they work in the fields on a public holiday (July 4 falling on a Sunday, Monday was non-working this year).

60 km from Portland, it is a bucolic landscape, crossed by the Willamette River and framed by the hills which produce the Pinot Noir, the wine which makes the fortune of the region. Hazelnut trees, mustard trees, mulberry trees, nurseries take over from farms. The pick-ups bringing in the farm workers are parked on the side of the road. Sometimes accompanied by portable toilets. Rarely shade. But on July 5, Saint-Paul is mostly busy clearing away the remains of the rodeo festival, its annual heyday, which ended in apotheosis with the Independence Day fireworks display.

A “perfectly preventable” death

Sebastian Perez, 38, arrived from Guatemala on May 5. It was his second stay in the United States. He had taken the risk of coming back because he needed the money to pay for fertility treatment for his wife. He often worked Saturdays – the pay was higher – to reimburse the smuggler who had helped him cross the border, according to information collected by the Oregon Farm Workers Union (PCUN).

On June 26, he was found lifeless in the middle of the afternoon in the Ernst Nursery & Farms nursery, two hours after his shift ended. The National Weather Service had issued a warning notice for excessive temperatures as early as 10 a.m. But in the current state of the legislation, nothing prevents farmers from keeping seasonal workers in the fields in all weathers. Their only obligation is to give them a break every four hours, as well as access to shade and drinking water, says Ira Cuello-Martinez, the union official in charge of the climate.

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An investigation has been opened by the Oregon Labor Inspectorate against the horticulturalist and Brothers Farm Labor, a subcontractor who provides the labor. Sebastian Perez’s death was “ perfectly avoidable », Considers the trade unionist. Ernst Nursery & Farms was sued in 2014 for negligence: the farm did not bother to provide water to farm workers. Then in 2007 and 2010: she did not post the information required by law on pesticides used in fields. Each time, the regulator lacked severity, regrets Ira Cuello-Martinez. “This time, we hope that the state will take the protection of agricultural workers more seriously. “

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