Dairy farms in the eastern United States are not immune to the problems described in “The Dark Side of Dairies,” the High Country News article excerpted in the March-April Utne Reader. Just like their counterparts in the West, many eastern dairies are financially strapped, rely on the labor of illegal immigrant workers, and have unsafe working conditions, Barry Estabrook reports in a blog post at The Atlantic.
Estabrook, a former dairy worker himself, writes about the death last December of José Obeth Santiz Cruz, a young Mexican man, after he was caught in a manure conveyor at the Vermont farm where he worked. Because Santiz Cruz didn’t have documentation, it took officials more than a week to determine his identity and where he came from. Writes Estabrook:
Vermont likes to promote itself as a verdant, wholesome state with picturesque black and white Holsteins grazing on hillside pastures. But the postcard image hides an ugly truth. Santiz Cruz was one of 1,500 to 2,000 immigrant workers, most lacking legal papers, who toil invisibly behind the scenes in the Vermont’s beleaguered dairy industry, working 80-hour weeks and living in total isolation, often sleeping in the very barns with the cows they tend.
“Vermont’s dairy farms depend on migrant workers,” said Brendan O’Neill, coordinator of the Vermont Migrant Farmworker Solidarity Project. “But there is no dignity in performing important work for that amount of time and having to hide yourself, never seeing the light of day. These people live and work in the shadows.”
The Vermont Migrant Farmworker Solidarity Project helped raise money to take Santiz Cruz’s body back to his hometown, San Isidro, in the Mexican state of Chiapas. If there’s doubt in anyone’s mind that Santiz Cruz’s death was a deeply tragic loss, the Solidarity Project’s description of his mother’s reaction ought to erase it:
“He is the fourth son I’ve lost,” she explained, wiping tears from her face. “Two from diarrhea and one died at birth. He went so far and suffered so much getting there only to come home in a box.”
Santiz Cruz’s mother, father, and sisters explained that José Obeth was forced to migrate, as so many others are in his community, because his family couldn’t sustain themselves without outside income to supplement their Tojolabal agricultural community.
“It took José 20 days to cross the desert, he barely ate. He arrived to Vermont much thinner than he’d left San Isidro and in a lot of debt. It took him 6 months to find work once in Vermont,” shared Zoyla.
The independent news website Vtdigger.org (“nitty, gritty in-depth news for Vermont”) reports that the Vermont Occupational Safety and Health Administration will not investigate Santiz Cruz’s death because the farm where he worked employed fewer than 10 workers, and the agency has jurisdiction to probe cases only on dairy farms with 11 or more workers. VOSHA, Vtdigger notes, is the only government agency with the authority to investigate the case.