FRESNO, Calif. (KGPE) – On Wednesday, California Attorney General Rob Bonta met with labor unions and advocacy organizations to hear about work conditions for farmworkers in the Central Valley. 

“There’s a lot of shady stuff going out there in ag business,” said strategic campaigns coordinator for the United Farmworker Foundation, Eriberto Fernandez.

During a roundtable discussion with Bonta and Assemblymember Dr. Joaquin Arambula, the UFW described ag labor as “the Wild West”, alleging a lack of enforcement of existing laws to protect farmworkers. Labor leaders also claimed workers faced retaliation when trying to report these issues.

The UFW recently launched a hotline to help farmworkers reach Cal/OSHA and file complaints.

“Farmworkers are calling about issues that range from wage theft to sexual harassment, to exposure to high heat temperatures. They’re not getting water, shade, rest breaks,” said Fernandez.

On the allegation of wage theft, the UFW said employers schedule workers for long shifts but divide them among sister companies to avoid overtime pay.

“They’re switching farmworker crews from one farm labor contractor to another farm labor contractor but at the end of the day they’re owned by the same person,” said Fernandez.

“I was really moved by the stories that were being told of the lack of enforcement of key laws and regulations that are there to protect workers,” Bonta said. “I’m no stranger to struggles and challenges of farmworkers, it’s part of my family’s history.” 

Bonta’s parents worked for the UFW and worked alongside Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta and Philip Vera Cruz organizing Latino and Filipino farmworkers for racial, economic and civil rights. 

“It would be wrong to think that it’s a fight of the past,” he said. “The fight for workplace safety, improving working conditions and fair wages, that’s a fight of today.”

During the roundtable, labor advocates said workers rely on organizations to get information and protection.

“We took on the role of state government in a lot of ways, ensuring the farmworkers had access to vaccines, had access to food,” said Fernandez.

Bonta said he’s fighting for more protections, referencing recent efforts in leading a coalition of 17 attorneys general urging Congress to pass the PRO Act, which he says would strengthen workers’ rights to unionize and bargain collectively.

When asked about improving government trust among farmworkers, he said he plans on organizing Know Your Rights sessions, setting up a hotline to hear from them directly and improving access to information in other languages. 

Organizers are also asking Sacramento to pass AB616, a bill vetoed by Gov. Newsom over the summer that is being reintroduced next year.

“This bill will give farmworkers the power to negotiate for themselves and bring changes to the working conditions that they’re living under.” 

The bill would have eliminated the secret ballot process for voting on issues of union representation. Opponents argued it would have created the potential for intimidation during the voting process. 

“This bill contains various inconsistencies and procedural issues related to the collection and review of ballot cards,” the governor said in his veto message.

Bonta also met with Central Valley farmers after hearing from organizers on Wednesday.