California shooting underscores strain on state’s farmworkers

The state’s agricultural workforce has long struggled with low wages and vulnerability stemming from immigration status.

Farmworkers wash their hands before returning to work at a farm outside of Half Moon Bay, California [Brian Osgood/Al Jazeera]
Farmworkers wash their hands before returning to work at a farm outside of Half Moon Bay, California, in 2020 [File: Brian Osgood/Al Jazeera]

A mass shooting that killed seven farmworkers in the United States last week has brought renewed attention to the hardships faced by agricultural workers in the state of California, stretched thin by low wages and the high cost of living.

The shooting on January 23 took place in the coastal community of Half Moon Bay, a small coastal town about 40 kilometres (25 miles) south of San Francisco in northern California.

There, a 66-year-old farmworker named Chunli Zhao opened fire with a semi-automatic handgun at two mushroom farms where he had been employed: first at the California Terra Garden, then at Concord Farms. Zhao was later discovered in his car and taken into custody.

He later told the San Francisco news station KNTV-TV in a jailhouse interview that he had been frustrated with the conditions he encountered at the farms, where he described bullying and long working hours that went unaddressed by management.

Prosecutors also said that Zhao’s supervisor demanded he pay $100 for repairs after a forklift he was operating collided with a co-worker’s bulldozer. Both the supervisor and the co-worker were killed in Zhao’s attack.

In the days since the shooting, state and local officials, including California Governor Gavin Newsom, have visited the area and denounced conditions in and around the farms. The governor’s office has announced that it would open investigations into both worksites.

“Some of you should see where these folks are living, the conditions they’re in, living in shipping containers,” Newsom said in a news conference after visiting the sites. A spokesperson for Newsom’s office later described the conditions as “simply deplorable”.

Local advocacy groups, however, said that the conditions are not surprising, and that low wages often force workers and their families to live in cramped conditions in the community, as multiple people share a small space to save money.

“As we have seen now, some of the farms will end up operating illegal housing units that are in extremely deplorable conditions,” said Hyun-Mi Kim, who has worked on housing issues in the area around Half Moon Bay with the local group Puente.

“Sometimes, three to four different households will have to share a single trailer with no clean water, no proper heating. Some farmworkers sleep in their cars. This is not new, so nobody can act surprised.”

Local news stations have reported that some workers were indeed living on-site at the California Terra Garden farm, which has since issued a statement promising to build new, more permanent housing for its employees.

Zhao himself did not live at the farm, but advocacy groups have said that housing overseen by an employer is another indicator of a relationship skewed in favour of management.

“When one person is in charge of your employment, your housing, your transportation and your immigration status, that is so much power in the hands of your employer,” said Hazel Davalos, community organising director with the group Central Coast United for a Sustainable Economy (CAUSE). “And it creates conditions that are ripe for abuse.”

Those conditions are exacerbated by the fact that the majority of the state’s farmworkers are from vulnerable immigrant communities. Of the seven agricultural employees killed in the Half Moon Bay shooting, five were of Chinese origin and two had roots in Mexico.

The coroner’s office identified six of the victims as Zhishen Liu, 73, of San Francisco; Marciano Martinez Jimenez, 50, of Moss Beach, California; Aixiang Zhang, 74, of San Francisco; Qizhong Cheng, 66, of Half Moon Bay; Jingzhi Lu, 64, of Half Moon Bay; and Yetao Bing, 43, whose hometown was uncertain. A seventh victim, Jose Romero Perez, was named in the charging documents.

Nearly 50 percent of California’s farmworkers are undocumented, and many are hesitant to speak up about violations of their rights or unfair labour practices.

Agriculture is one of the state’s most important industries, and the sector sold more than $50bn of produce in 2021, according to the California Department of Food and Agriculture. But that year, many farmworkers make a median wage of only $14.30 an hour.

“The power of companies or employers is very strong against the worker,” said Ofelia Flores, an organiser with the Mixteco Indigena Community Organizing Project (MICOP), which works with farmworkers in the community of Oxnard, in southern California. “It is very common for them to suffer from abuses of their rights in their workplace.”

Bibiana Guzman, a strawberry picker in Oxnard, said that she makes about $15.50 an hour, a wage that makes it difficult to cover expenses such as rent, transportation, groceries, utility bills and childcare.

Her income has fallen in recent weeks, though, because of a series of intense storms called “atmospheric rivers”. They have drenched the state in record rainfall, forcing farmworkers to lose job opportunities due to road closures and flooded fields.

“They’ve only given us two days of work until now. I don’t know when it will improve,” Guzman said. “I am making use of what I save in the season, but with the days that I work, I’m already running out [of money].”

Speaking at a news conference on January 24, San Mateo County Sheriff’s Department spokesperson Eamonn Allen told reporters that the storms had heaped additional difficulty onto the lives of local residents.

“There’s been flooding, there’s been people out of work,” he noted.

For Guzman, the strawberry farmer, her situation — like many in California’s agricultural community — is desperate. “I really don’t know what to do,” she said, looking to the future.

Source: Al Jazeera