Worker died pruning on Two Buck Chuck co-owner's land

  • Friday 13 June 2008

The 17-year-old who died last month pruning vines in California was working in vineyards part-owned by Fred Franzia of Two Buck Chuck fame.

On 13 May Maria Isabel Vasquez Jimenez, 17, passed out from heat exhaustion while pruning vines in mid-90 degree temperature, and later died in hospital. She was two months pregnant.

Jimenez was working in vineyards owned by West Coast Grape Farming, which is owned in part by Fred Franzia of California’s Bronco Wine Co – the producer of the Charles Shaw brand, also known as Two Buck Chuck.

Her fiancée told officials that the supervisors did not call for medical help after Jimenez collapsed, didn’t offer her water or shade, and later told him to lie to hospital staff about his fiancee’s age and whom she was working for.

West Coast Grape Farming officially declined to comment on the incident.

Other workers said that the labor contractor for whom they were working, Merced Farm Labor, had not provided sufficient water or shade for breaks during the workers’ 9.5 hour shifts. Labor laws prohibit minors under the age of 18 from working such long shifts.

Merced Farm Labor had been cited and fined last year by work safety inspectors for failing to train its employees and supervisors in how to prevent and treat heat exhaustion.

According to Kate McGuire, spokesperson for the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health, Jimenez’ death is under investigation and they are in the process of revoking the labor contractor’s license. Criminal charges may be brought.

In the wake of Jimenez’ death, 500 farmworkers marched for four days, arriving at the Sacramento Capitol last Wednesday to demand safer work conditions.

McGuire says that in 2006, the last year for which reliable figures are available, there were 8 confirmed deaths from heat exhaustion and 46 confirmed cases of heat illness among laborers working outside in all industries, from farming to construction to mining or manufacturing.

With summertime temperatures in the central valley regularly topping 110 degrees, any sort of outdoor work is potentially dangerous. ‘It’s not just agriculture,’ says McGuire.

‘We have to make sure this doesn’t happen again,’ said California Governor Arnold Swarzenegger. The governor signed legislation in 2005 requiring employers to provide workers with four cups of water per hour, shaded resting areas, paid break periods of at least 5 minutes, safety training and an emergency plan.

Since 2005, DOSH records show that both inspections of labor conditions and citations for violation of these regulations have increased steadily.

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