The Rights of Punjabi Farmworkers

In the past few months, New America Media has reported on the treatment and exploitation of Punjabi farmworkers and the cultural isolation they are experiencing. This is not a new issue nor is it unique to Punjabi farmworkers, but it is a growing trend that is beginning to be addressed by workers’ rights organizations. One of the most recent articles by NAM speaks about the exploitation of farmworkers who are here on temporary visas.

yubaupdate_1130.gifIn California’s rural Central Valley farmland, there are rumors that American farmers of Indian origin are, in an ironic twist, also abusing the temporary work visa program. In 2005, the case against a prominent Yuba City, Calif. grower, Harbans Bath, was settled in favor of his workers. He had been accused of housing hundreds of temporary workers, including some of his own relatives, in trailers, pesticide storage sheds and other structures that didn’t meet housing safety and health standards. According to Lee Pliscou, a lead attorney at California Rural Legal Assistance, the workers weren’t provided with food – instead, they were made to eat the crops they picked. They were also told that they wouldn’t be paid until the end of the harvest season. The workers from the Indian state of Punjab readily accepted this condition, since that is how payment has often worked on Punjabi farms.

An interesting statistic suggests that while South Asian growers account for less than one percent of the farmers in California, records show that they have been the targets of five percent of civil actions. Related to labor violations, Punjabi farmworkers are also experiencing cultural isolation that is adversely impacting their health. California governmental agencies that are responsible for protecting the rights of farm workers do not have Punjabi-speaking outreach workers. Many farm-working Punjabis often endure hazardous conditions, substandard pay, and little or no access to health care. Indian American growers in California have paid more than $15,000 in field violation fines to county agricultural commissioners in the past two years.

Indian American farmers paid fines for failing to provide workers with coveralls when they worked with what the EPA calls “category I and II” pesticides – insecticides and ground fumigants known to be highly toxic. In peach growing, these include diazinon and methidathion – pesticides sprayed in the spring and summer to control the peach twig borer, a moth whose larvae burrow into the fruit’s flesh. Exposure has also been linked to impaired neurological development in fetuses and in infants, chronic fatigue syndrome and Parkinson’s disease.

The impact of such violations are appalling,

Like many of the men living in Mahal Plaza, Harpreet Kaur’s (not her real name) husband doesn’t work. Last spring, while moving irrigation pipes in a Marysville orchard, his foot got stuck under a pipe. In his struggle to extricate it, much of the skin was gouged off his leg. “The foreman followed the rules and took him to the hospital,” said Kaur, “but he wasn’t invited to work again.” For the past year, the family has been scraping by on income from Kaur’s seasonal farm work and unemployment checks, and her husband’s disability income. Kaur finds farm work physically draining and debilitating, but she has no choice but to continue with it. During the harvest season, she will often work over 10 hours a day without being paid overtime wages. She gets two 10-minute breaks for eight hours of work, and lunches are unpaid. [Link]

As a result of an investigative report 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. As one woman poignantly states, “Most of us don’t speak English, and the people who want to help us don’t speak Punjabi, we don’t know what we’re missing out on. Something wrong could be happening, but we would never know it.”

What are yourthoughts or personal experiences with these issues?


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17 Responses to “The Rights of Punjabi Farmworkers”

  1. Mewa Singh says:

    This is a huge problem. Exploitation in many ways is worst amongst the same ethnic groups. Thanks for bringing this to our attention Sundari.

  2. Mewa Singh says:

    This is a huge problem. Exploitation in many ways is worst amongst the same ethnic groups. Thanks for bringing this to our attention Sundari.

  3. Camille says:

    This is awful and not surprising. We've seen this historically in other communities as well, but it's basically profiteering from the invisibilization and isolation of Punjabi farmers. I feel like part of this is reinforced by the "sheheri/pind" divide that permeates both California and Punjab. Many of us who come from more urban centers rarely think about our cultural community, and its challenges, in the Central Valley. Even fewer of us are willing to return and begin investing in social services, assistance, equity measures, etc.

    We discussed earlier how Punjabi realtors may have preyed on Punjabi immigrants in the subprime mortgage foreclosure debacle. I think this kind of abuse is really similar.

    What are the actions we can take as a community to bring these to light, but beyond that, to take action? What kind of resources and support should we provide to help folks who are hoodwinked and prevent potential abuses? What kind of oversight or ethical requirements should be built into this?

  4. Camille says:

    This is awful and not surprising. We’ve seen this historically in other communities as well, but it’s basically profiteering from the invisibilization and isolation of Punjabi farmers. I feel like part of this is reinforced by the “sheheri/pind” divide that permeates both California and Punjab. Many of us who come from more urban centers rarely think about our cultural community, and its challenges, in the Central Valley. Even fewer of us are willing to return and begin investing in social services, assistance, equity measures, etc.

    We discussed earlier how Punjabi realtors may have preyed on Punjabi immigrants in the subprime mortgage foreclosure debacle. I think this kind of abuse is really similar.

    What are the actions we can take as a community to bring these to light, but beyond that, to take action? What kind of resources and support should we provide to help folks who are hoodwinked and prevent potential abuses? What kind of oversight or ethical requirements should be built into this?

  5. baingandabhartha says:

    Just reveals greed. I dont know if our community has more greed than the surrounding culture here in the US or in India-but if you look at Punjabi lifestyles, you can see why the almighty dollar or rupee is the bottom line.

  6. baingandabhartha says:

    Just reveals greed. I dont know if our community has more greed than the surrounding culture here in the US or in India-but if you look at Punjabi lifestyles, you can see why the almighty dollar or rupee is the bottom line.

  7. Sundari says:

    Exploitation that occurs within same ethnic groups is not only worse but it impacts an entire community in a very negative way. Unlike other ethnic groups, Punjabis tend to take advantage of those in our community who are immigrants or don't speak English. I think one of the greatest needs identified in the articles is for labor and governmental organizations to hire Punjabi outreach workers who can communicate with the community and inform them of their rights. A lot of the fear that farmworkers experience stems from their lack of awareness of what their rights are and what is against the law in how they are treated.

  8. Sundari says:

    Exploitation that occurs within same ethnic groups is not only worse but it impacts an entire community in a very negative way. Unlike other ethnic groups, Punjabis tend to take advantage of those in our community who are immigrants or don’t speak English. I think one of the greatest needs identified in the articles is for labor and governmental organizations to hire Punjabi outreach workers who can communicate with the community and inform them of their rights. A lot of the fear that farmworkers experience stems from their lack of awareness of what their rights are and what is against the law in how they are treated.

  9. […] coverage: “Nanak Kheti”… and Natural Farming, The Rights of Punjabi Farmworkers, Asian Americans and Rural Development, Farmer suicides […]

  10. Sundari says:

    Daljit, the CRLA is doing much needed work! I agree that we need more Punjabi-speaking outreach workers to help disseminate information to farmworkers. I'm sure that farmworkers do not seek out assitance in general, but particulary those that are undocumented are even less likely to seek help. I'm not sure how long you have been working with Punjabi farmworkers, but I'm curious how they respond to the assistance being provided?

  11. Daljit says:

    [quote comment="1479"]This is awful and not surprising. We've seen this historically in other communities as well, but it's basically profiteering from the invisibilization and isolation of Punjabi farmers. I feel like part of this is reinforced by the "sheheri/pind" divide that permeates both California and Punjab. Many of us who come from more urban centers rarely think about our cultural community, and its challenges, in the Central Valley. Even fewer of us are willing to return and begin investing in social services, assistance, equity measures, etc.

    We discussed earlier how Punjabi realtors may have preyed on Punjabi immigrants in the subprime mortgage foreclosure debacle. I think this kind of abuse is really similar.

    What are the actions we can take as a community to bring these to light, but beyond that, to take action? What kind of resources and support should we provide to help folks who are hoodwinked and prevent potential abuses? What kind of oversight or ethical requirements should be built into this?[/quote]

    California Rural Legal Assistance (CRLA) in Marysville handles housing issues for low-income clients and has a strong tradition of representing farmworkers; CRLA Fresno works with farmworkers on labor issues. At the 29th Annual Sikh Day Parade and Nagar Kirtan in Northern California in November 2008, a coalition of state agencies and CRLA distributed +1500 packets in Punjabi and English of information on discrimination law, employment law and other civil rights issues. The other oganizations in this coalition included the Agricultural Labor Relations Board (ALRB), Cal-OSHA, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission(EEOC), and the Labor Commisioner's Office of Sacramento. Their represetatives were on-site speaking to attendees.

    I remember as I passed out those materials I ran into a group of Punjabi female farmworkers. One of thrm said "But I don't have documents, can you still help me?" And then I told her she also has a right to equal pay on time and that our sister organization, CRLA F (Foundation) could help her and is not restricted by federal funding to represent undocumented farmworkers.

    So, we need to increase media outreach. And I echo the need for community outrach workers. An enthusiastic college student seeking to gain a masters degree in social work or a law degree would be perfect for these types of positions. On the other hand, an actual farmworker financially capable and willing to exercise leadership could be just as effective, if not more. This person has the first hand knowledge of the life of a farm-worker and the layout of the fields, etc. We need to be empowering the farmworkers themselves, neighborhood by neighborhoos.

    My organization, CRLA, is seeking to conduct more outreach to these communities in addition to the others forementiond.

  12. Daljit says:

    [quote comment=”1479″]This is awful and not surprising. We’ve seen this historically in other communities as well, but it’s basically profiteering from the invisibilization and isolation of Punjabi farmers. I feel like part of this is reinforced by the “sheheri/pind” divide that permeates both California and Punjab. Many of us who come from more urban centers rarely think about our cultural community, and its challenges, in the Central Valley. Even fewer of us are willing to return and begin investing in social services, assistance, equity measures, etc.

    We discussed earlier how Punjabi realtors may have preyed on Punjabi immigrants in the subprime mortgage foreclosure debacle. I think this kind of abuse is really similar.

    What are the actions we can take as a community to bring these to light, but beyond that, to take action? What kind of resources and support should we provide to help folks who are hoodwinked and prevent potential abuses? What kind of oversight or ethical requirements should be built into this?[/quote]

    California Rural Legal Assistance (CRLA) in Marysville handles housing issues for low-income clients and has a strong tradition of representing farmworkers; CRLA Fresno works with farmworkers on labor issues. At the 29th Annual Sikh Day Parade and Nagar Kirtan in Northern California in November 2008, a coalition of state agencies and CRLA distributed +1500 packets in Punjabi and English of information on discrimination law, employment law and other civil rights issues. The other oganizations in this coalition included the Agricultural Labor Relations Board (ALRB), Cal-OSHA, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission(EEOC), and the Labor Commisioner’s Office of Sacramento. Their represetatives were on-site speaking to attendees.

    I remember as I passed out those materials I ran into a group of Punjabi female farmworkers. One of thrm said “But I don’t have documents, can you still help me?” And then I told her she also has a right to equal pay on time and that our sister organization, CRLA F (Foundation) could help her and is not restricted by federal funding to represent undocumented farmworkers.

    So, we need to increase media outreach. And I echo the need for community outrach workers. An enthusiastic college student seeking to gain a masters degree in social work or a law degree would be perfect for these types of positions. On the other hand, an actual farmworker financially capable and willing to exercise leadership could be just as effective, if not more. This person has the first hand knowledge of the life of a farm-worker and the layout of the fields, etc. We need to be empowering the farmworkers themselves, neighborhood by neighborhoos.

    My organization, CRLA, is seeking to conduct more outreach to these communities in addition to the others forementiond.

  13. Sundari says:

    Daljit, the CRLA is doing much needed work! I agree that we need more Punjabi-speaking outreach workers to help disseminate information to farmworkers. I’m sure that farmworkers do not seek out assitance in general, but particulary those that are undocumented are even less likely to seek help. I’m not sure how long you have been working with Punjabi farmworkers, but I’m curious how they respond to the assistance being provided?

  14. jhon says:

    I remember as I passed out those materials I ran into a group of Punjabi female farmworkers. One of thrm said "But I don't have documents australian skilled independent visa

  15. fruit pickers says:

    The rights of Farm workers are disdained by conventional agricul- ture in the drive for. Filipino, Italian, Japanese, Mexican, Portuguese, and Punjabi immigrants. He says the rights that Canadians cherish don't seem to apply when he steps. Speaking in Punjabi, Khakh shrugs as he makes the statement.

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