California lawmakers are calling for an investigation into the state’s cannabis sector after the Los Angeles Times uncovered evidence of rampant worker exploitation and even deaths.
Squalid living conditions, wage theft and threats
Cannabis workers in California are facing serious abuse, amounting in some cases to modern slavery. Employers reportedly threaten workers with guns and physical violence, or by claiming they will report them to immigration authorities or withhold their wages, according to the Times investigation.
Law enforcement officials claimed to have found workers living in squalid conditions, with limited access to food and sanitation facilities. They claim that many do not receive the agreed-upon wages and are unable to leave.
Sheriffs say they lack resources to deal with the issue, but that the scale of the problem is vast. Indeed, tens of thousands of illegal farms span the state, and even licensed farms are not adequately monitored.
The Times investigation revealed that over 200 cannabis operations had been accused of exploitation, and that more than 100 were state-licensed operations. The Department of Industrial Relations is currently investigating the deaths of 32 workers that the newspaper uncovered but that had never been reported to safety regulators.
Cannabis workers lack support to defend their rights against unscrupulous employers. The investigation found that even if workers knew how to submit an official wage theft complaint to the state’s labor agency, there would be a delay of as long as two years before a decision would be made. Reporting the crime often resulted in threats against their lives.
Lawmakers want change
The Freedom United campaigned hard for Governor Newsom to pass legislation that would better protect temporary migrant workers in California, but he has consistently rejected such proposals. Last year, he rejected a bill to create a labor trafficking crime unit despite it having received unanimous support and to better monitor foreign labor recruiters.
But lawmakers are not backing down. Assemblymember Blanca Rubio says she plans on reviving the rejected legislation and adding a mechanism to oblige the state Department of Cannabis Control to act on evidence of wrongdoing.
As the daughter of migrant farmworkers, Senate Agriculture Committee Chair Melissa Hurtado is concerned about agricultural worker welfare and is discussing an agenda for legislative hearings on the issue.
Reggie Jones-Sawyer, the Assembly’s Public Safety Committee chairperson, has also committed to tackle the issues of farmworker exploitation and corruption in the industry.
Some lawmakers, including Hurtado and Rubio, said the state set up its cannabis market without addressing the labor-intensive crop’s reliance on easily exploited immigrant workers. For some industries — garment factories and car washes, for example — the state set up special enforcement programs and created funds to compensate exploited workers, but this has not been done for cannabis or agriculture in general.
Freedom United welcomes lawmakers’ plans to push back against Governor Newsom’s repeated failures to tackle the issue. You can read more about our campaign and leave a comment for the Governor here.
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I am a member of an anti HT taskforce in western Colorado. CO passed SB087 recently which includes whistle-blower protection as well as the CO Dept of Labor and Employment providing a bi-lingual page to report labor abuses. Having helped an ag worker fill out his complaint form, it is urgent that the process be accessible. Unfortunately there is a warning that claims may take months to process.