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Santa Maria farmworker forum draws overflow crowd

It was an overwhelming show of solidarity and support for local farm workers in Santa Maria Monday night.

Hundreds of people packed the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors Hearing Room for a forum on key issues confronting field workers.

They talked about everything from immigration to wage theft to unsafe working conditions and employer harassment and retaliation.

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So many people showed up for the forum the County Fire Marshall had to order people outside of the building for safety reasons.

A panel of county, state and other local representatives attempted to ease growing concern among local field workers that are here illegally.

“When a crime has been committed, we will respond, that is what we do”, said forum panelist John Savrnoch with the Santa Barbara County District Attorney’s Office, “if you have been victimized by any crime, whether it has something to do with your employment or your life in general, your status, your immigration status is of absolutely no concern to us in the District Attorney’s Office.”

The state representative said California labor law protects all workers.

“Regardless of the language that you speak, the country that you were born in and came from or your immigration status”, said Erika Monterroza with the California Department of Industrial Relations, “none of our agencies, none of our divisions, or programs within our department provide information to immigration services, we do not share information on anyone with ICE.”

Santa Barbara County Agriculture Commissioner Cathy Fisher said her department conducts routine inspections of all county farming operations.

“During these inspections there’s a wide array of requirements that growers and employers are responsible for with regards to pesticide safety”, Fisher said, “once we’ve decided the level of enforcement we then issue violations and potential fines that go along with that and we keep a record, a compliance record, of every farming operation in the county which we have 1,600 farming operations.”

Others were there in a show of solidarity with local field workers advocating for a Farmworker Bill of Rights in Santa Barbara County.

“Too many face wage theft, extreme overwork, health and safety risks”, said Hazel Davalos with local group CAUSE, “unfortunately sometimes the laws on the books are not the laws in the fields and the existing laws are not being properly enforced in our community, that’s why many of us are here to make sure we can pass protections locally.”

“I have heard many times the farm workers express their fear when it comes to saying what’s going on in the fields, they’re scared of retaliation, a lot of the workers have also shared they’re not being paid all of their hours or given their mandatory rest periods”, said local field worker supporter Olga Santos, “I know that people will support this, everybody should be treated as human beings and their laws have to be respected.”

The Farmworker Bill of Rights proposal is expected to come before the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors in the future.

The forum was sponsored by south County Supervisors Salud Carbajal and Janet Wolf.

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