Jose Rangel Chavez and 18 other Mexican guest workers were dozing as their bus hurtled down Interstate 40 in a light rain. After nine months away from home, the 22-year-old was about to complete a meandering round trip of nearly 5,000 miles – from the citrus groves of Florida to farms in Michigan, where he harvested beets, broccoli, pumpkins and cauliflower, and finally back to their homeland.
They were just north of Little Rock, Arkansas, about a half day’s hard ride from the border, when it happened: The 1997 Van Hool motor coach sideswiped a barrier and struck a concrete bridge support, peeling back the roof like a sardine can. Chavez and five others were killed; seven more workers were severely injured.
The crash in November 2015 , though an isolated tragedy, was also the result of chronic problems within an American agriculture industry dependent upon a reliable supply of low-wage, foreign-born workers. Chavez and the others were part of an annual mass migration made possible partly by a guarantee of free and safe transportation to and from the fields each day and, at season’s end, back home to their loved ones. But for many, that transportation is neither free nor safe.
It has been just over a half-century since the nation’s worst fatal vehicle accident killed nearly three dozen migrants, a horror that farmworker advocates had hoped would bring lasting reforms. Yet, due to enforcement gaps and the sometimes callous attitudes of those who contract for the workers, laborers continue to ride in overloaded, poorly maintained, uninsured vehicles – often driven by a fellow crew member without a proper license, or with no license at all.
I think there’s more unregistered, improperly insured, unsafe transportation out there for farmworkers than … 20 years ago.
Attorney Greg Schell, deputy director of Southern Migrant Legal Services
The Associated Press found more than a dozen accidents that left at least 38 dead and nearly 200 injured just since January 2015. The casualties included a 5-year-old Mexican boy who died when the van transporting him with his mother and 14 other blueberry pickers flipped in Virginia, and a 4-year old killed when a bus carrying mostly Haitian corn harvesters crashed in Florida.
Grim as it is, the AP’s tally – generated through extensive interviews, public records requests and searches of online news reports – is almost certainly a significant undercount. No one keeps track of the casualties nationally.
“I think there’s more unregistered, improperly insured, unsafe transportation out there for farmworkers than … 20 years ago,” says attorney Greg Schell, deputy director of Southern Migrant Legal Services.
A big reason, he and others contend: Rarely are those who profit most from this cheap labor made to pay. Instead, it is the families of people like Jose Chavez who lose.
The dream: a house without leaks
In exchange for tending the landowner’s animals in the Mexican mountain village of El Sabino, the Chavez family – nine in all – got the use of a small wooden house, if you could call it that. If a stiff wind came through their valley, the rickety shack would shift and groan. Rain dripped through the thatched roof.
“When you got out of the bed, the first thing you would step on was water,” says Jose’s mother, Maria Felix Martinez Chavez.
Jose’s dream was to replace this hovel with a solid house made of concrete. But he knew that with the 100 pesos a day – about $5 – he could earn working the fields around home, it would take forever.
So he signed on to do farm labor in the United States.
Of the 1.1 million farmworkers in the U.S., 71 percent are foreign-born, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Nearly half of those acknowledge working here illegally.
Chavez did it by the books. His employer, Vasquez Citrus & Hauling of Lake Placid, Florida, is one of thousands taking part in the federal H-2A guest worker visa program. In addition to wages of $11.56 an hour, contractor Juan Vasquez would provide Chavez room, board and, crucially, a guarantee of free transportation from Mexico and back .
Whenever he could, Chavez dutifully wired money home. And his pledge of a better house began to be realized: His parents constructed two simple but sturdy rooms, with a roof that didn’t leak.
Last Nov. 4, Jose wired his parents 6,000 pesos, about $320. Two days later, he was dead.
When the crash investigations began, a pattern of alleged safety violations emerged. Officials say the bus, purchased by Vasquez just the day before, was not registered with the Labor Department – meaning the company was not authorized to use it to transport workers. Driver Roberto Vasquez, Juan’s brother, did not have a commercial operator’s license.
In addition, the vehicle was woefully underinsured, says Schell, who has been working with the victims’ families. With a capacity of 47, it should have been insured for around $5 million; Vasquez’s liability coverage was one-fifth of that. And his workers’ compensation policy did not cover the journey home.
In the two years before the crash, Vasquez Citrus had been cited 22 times for alleged violations, from underage drivers to vehicles with worn tires, according to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. The Labor Department had also cited Juan Vasquez for failure to provide safe vehicles, going back to 2007. But no fines were issued.
Lori Flores, a history professor at Stony Brook University who has studied the Mexican farmworker movement, says the scenario is all too familiar.
“It’s an honor system,” she says of the regulatory apparatus meant to ensure workers’ safe transport. “And it’s only when accidents … happen that agencies might get involved. But then it’s way too late.”
Laws haven’t helped
It was the tragedy two generations earlier that convinced Congress that migrants needed special protection on the road.
On Sept. 17, 1963, a makeshift bus carrying 58 migrant workers was returning to a labor camp when it was struck by a freight train at an unmarked crossing outside the town of Chualar, California. The “bus” was essentially a flatbed truck fitted with two parallel wooden benches, with no restraints. Thirty-two workers died and 25 were severely injured. The driver was unlicensed.
In the wake of Chualar and another incident that year that killed 27, Congress passed a law requiring contractors to provide proof of liability insurance and to inform workers about housing, wages and transportation. But many didn’t bother even to register.
Two decades later, lawmakers enacted the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act, or MSPA, which, among other requirements, mandates that agricultural employers show that transportation is properly insured and meets safety standards.
Still, the transport deaths persist, and for a wide range of reasons.
More than 10,000 farm labor contractors are registered under MSPA, but Labor’s Wage and Hour Division has just 976 investigators to police them, plus the millions of other businesses covered by the laws it enforces.
Probably the cost of a new set of tires for the van isn’t all that much less than the fine. So you end up saving money by just paying the fine and treating the farmworkers as disposable,.
Dawson Morton of the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation
The agency assessed agricultural employers more than $5 million in penalties last year for violating safety and labor standards, including transportation. Wage and Hour cited 1,623 cases of transportation violations between 2010 and 2015, but officials acknowledge that the agency “lacks the resources to be everywhere workers are being transported.”
That lack of manpower, combined with often minor penalties for infractions, encourages people to cut corners, farmworker advocates say.
“Probably the cost of a new set of tires for the van isn’t all that much less than the fine. So you end up saving money by just paying the fine and treating the farmworkers as disposable,” says Dawson Morton of the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation.
In addition, workers are afraid of being fired or deported for complaining about bad conditions, Schell says.
Often, a record of alleged non-compliance is discovered only after a crash.
This July 2, police say a 1979 school bus carrying dozens of Haitian farmworkers and family members blew through a flashing red light near the town of St. Marks, Florida, and was struck by a tractor-trailer. The truck driver and three on the bus were killed, including a 4-year-old boy. Among those injured was 86-year-old Solange Estinfort, who was found unconscious beneath the corpse of a co-worker. “Someone took me from the bus and put me outside,” she said in Creole.
She told AP that she was crushed beneath two benches that came loose during the crash – and unsecured bus seats were among 25 violations cited in post-accident inspections of farm labor contractor Billy R. Evans’ fleet. On July 29, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration issued an order against the Belle Glade, Florida, contractor, taking his 12 buses and six trucks off line and stating that Evans’ practices presented “an imminent risk of serious injury or death.”
Even after the fatal accident, the agency told Evans it found “no indication that you implemented any safety management plans or altered your current operational model.” It noted the same driver had been in a similar, though non-fatal, crash in January.
The case remains under investigation. Neither Evans nor the driver responded to AP’s calls for comment.
Lawyer Jack Sobel, representing the truck driver’s widow, expressed sympathy for the dead and injured workers. “I’d love to see those who are responsible for this horror show be held accountable,” he told the AP.
But the way the industry is structured, it can be difficult to determine just who is responsible.
The vast majority of farmworkers are not actually employees of the growers on whose land they toil. Instead, farmers routinely deal with a network of labor contractors, brokers and employee “leasing” companies.
The key is to get enough laborers to the fields. Some car pool. Many others fall prey to so-called “raiteros,” who charge desperate workers often exorbitant per-head fees for transportation in vehicles that are unsafe. In many cases, raiteros decide who gets work and who doesn’t. Raiteros are “a scourge” to this vulnerable community, says Marley Moynahan of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in Florida.
When there’s an accident, investigators often find that supposed worker car pools are actually directed by a grower or contractor.
On June 20, 2015, four farmworkers, including a 16-year-old girl, died when the van they were in crashed in Merced County, California. Police say the unlicensed driver fell asleep at the wheel going 65 mph.
This August, Labor’s San Francisco office asked a federal judge for an injunction ordering both a grower, Valley Garlic, and a contractor, X-Treme Ag Labor, to comply with transportation rules or risk a contempt citation.
In its filing , the agency cited a 1997 federal court ruling from Florida that rejected the view that growers who use labor contractors have no responsibility themselves to make sure workers travel safely.
The ruling stated: “Once the grower had seen the contractor’s certificate, the contractor would be free to drive fruit pickers in whatever broken down, unsafe, uninsured van he or she chose. The growers actually using the workers could turn a blind eye to such flagrant abuses. Congress surely did not pass a law to impose additional responsibilities on agricultural employers, then turn around and say that all they must do is examine a piece of paper.”
The complaint alleges that X-Treme Ag employees recruited workers and charged them for their daily round trip. Valley displayed “astonishing indifference” to the “pervasive unlawful transportation of its workers,” the government says.
Neither company responded to AP’s requests for comment. But in court filings, both denied any wrongdoing.
Raimondo, the C.A.T attorney, says Labor is using these court actions as a way of “extorting settlements” from growers and contractors. Janet Herold, West Regional Solicitor for the Department of Labor, says these legal actions are a message to the agricultural community that “we are going to change tools until you change practices.”
“We’re not going to be satisfied until fewer people are being killed on the way to work.”
A $2,000 penalty
In the crash that killed Jose Chavez, Labor Department inspectors recommended more than $500,000 in civil penalties, citing the six dead and Vasquez Citrus’ history, according to a draft narrative obtained by the AP. But officials from the national and regional offices disagreed. Their recommended penalty: $2,000.
Labor and National Transportation Safety Board investigations are ongoing, and both declined comment.
Juan Vasquez did not reply to AP requests for comment. Roberto Vasquez, whose federal contractor certification was revoked in April for unrelated reasons, hung up on a reporter.
Despite the ongoing probes, Juan Vasquez was authorized visas for nearly 350 guest workers this past year. Labor has said “due process” requires that contractors not be disqualified while an investigation is pending. But that doesn’t make sense and “should be fixed,” said Howard Berman, a former California congressman who sponsored bills on farmworker protection during two decades in office.
Meanwhile, lawyers are wrangling over how to divide the limited insurance proceeds from the crash among the 13 affected families.
Most of the dead and injured were, like Jose Chavez, their families’ breadwinners.
Jose’s parents had to borrow money to bury him. In the simple, sturdy house his work built, they created a makeshift shrine: Beneath an arch of silk flowers stands a photo of Jose, superimposed on a picture of Jesus.
His father, 57-year-old Wenceslao Rangel Gutierrez, hobbled by untreated high blood pressure, can no longer provide for his family. Jose’s mother, weeping before his portrait, says he was “our only option.”
“The only hope we had.”
AP Writer Olga R. Rodriguez in San Francisco contributed to this report.
Allen G. Breed is a national writer, based in Raleigh.