The Frontline Victims of Climate Change
María Cecilia Hinojos Pressey is operations director for PCUN (Pineros Y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste), Oregon’s farmworker union. She spoke with Sojourners’ Jenna Barnett.
“SEBASTIAN FRANCISCO PEREZ was a 38-year-old farmworker working at a tree farm in Saint Paul, Ore. He had come here to gain some money for fertility treatments for his wife, because they really wanted to start a family. I guess people just weren’t aware of the signs of heat exhaustion and heat stroke. After some time, folks he was working alongside were like, ‘Hey, where’s Francisco?’ When they found him, he had passed away from the heat. When PCUN found out about that, we were outraged, because this was a very preventable death. We were openly advocating for the Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Division and the governor to issue emergency rules, because we knew something like this was going to happen. [After Perez’s death] we got these rules enacted. It’s important to have clean water, frequent breaks, and access to shaded areas, because when you’re in the field, there’s not really much cover.
Climate change is putting all our lives at risk, but [especially] people that are out [on farms], who can’t stop working, because that means that we no longer have access to food. Farmworkers are putting their lives on the line to pick food for our communities. Farmworkers feel like they can’t take a day off or they can’t take a break, or they can’t miss work—be it because they’re sick, or because there’s smoke that’s so bad that you can’t even see or breathe, or there’s heat that’s so bad that it’s impacting your well-being—because they need to be able to make that money to provide for their family.
According to the CDC, between 2004 and 2018 there was an annual average of 702 heat-related deaths in the U.S. Farmworkers are 35 times more likely to die of heat exhaustion than any other occupation in the country. And it’s projected that, by 2050, hot days due to climate change will double.”