Ranch workers focus at human rights meeting

08/18/2016

The harsh lives of ranch workers in West Marin took center stage last week at a Human Rights Commission hearing held in Point Reyes Station, where workers and their advocates discussed long hours, precarious housing and virtually nonexistent access to mental health services, among other problems. Concerned citizens also spoke up about elder issues, housing problems and youth services. 

The commission, which was reformulated by the Board of Supervisors last year and has seven commissioners who all started in 2015, has embarked on a four-town listening tour this year. They are holding every other meeting in one of four areas: the Canal in June, West Marin this month, Marin City in October and Novato in December. As far as anyone knows, this is the first time the commission has ever held a meeting in West Marin.

Much of the public comment period last week revolved around conditions for ranch workers. Maria Niggle, an advocate for Latinos, passionately explained weak or non-existent services for ranch workers in West Marin, from mental health to legal help. “It’s not getting better,” she said, adding that she knew of two ranch workers who had committed suicide in the past two years. “They desperately need mental health services.”

One major obstacle is West Marin’s small population compared to that of the city corridor, making it more expensive to provide services, particularly to isolated ranch workers. Often rural residents are directed over the hill—often to the Canal, where many services for vulnerable populations are offered. But for ranch workers, who work long and exhausting hours, driving an hour each way to reach help is rarely feasible. And navigating services when you speak little or no English, or may be undocumented, is even more intimidating and difficult.

Ms. Niggle also spoke of housing struggles. Because ranch workers typically live in worker housing, often trailers, they have no lease agreement. And if they lose their job, they simultaneously lose their home.

Given the housing crisis in the county and the ongoing conversion of long-term units to vacation rentals in West Marin, these workers may have little luck finding a home in the area, said Kim Thompson, executive director of the Community Land Trust Association of West Marin. If they could even afford it: one ranch worker said they are often paid below minimum wage, about $10 an hour, though even the minimum wage would afford few opportunities to a family, given the area’s high rents. Sometimes power dynamics playing out at ranches even replicate themselves at the playground at school, one person said.

The situation is frustrating for many who feel the plight of ranch workers in an area celebrated for agriculture is often ignored. Carlos Porrata, a Seahaven resident, said money made from agricultural products was “not coming down to the people who make it happen.”

One family described life on a ranch in harsh detail. They lived for a long time in a trailer in poor condition, but even when they moved into a house on the ranch, mice, mold and termites were rampant, the mother of the family said. The father worked 12 or 13-hour days, once even through a knee injury. “There were a lot of abuses,” she said, and sometimes they felt like “slaves.” After 16 years, she said her husband was fired, to be replaced by someone who spoke better English. 

Other issues raised at the meeting included the barriers elders face accessing services in West Marin. Given additional impediments like physical disabilities and sometimes a reliance on caregivers, it’s often difficult to access what public transportation exists or to reach places over the hill, like Legal Aid of Marin. 

The lack of youth services also came up. Inverness resident Madeline Hope noted there is little funding allocated to youth programming on the coast, which could provide alternatives to drugs and alcohol for some teens.

Commissioners said they would evaluate what they hear from each town, and potentially meet with local groups or people for follow-up conversations and additional input. Gina Fromer, the chair of the commission, said this week she is already planning further discussions with stakeholders around some of the problems she heard about in West Marin.

After all four meetings, commissioners will assemble their findings in a report and make formal recommendations to supervisors, as well as county agencies or other groups they believe could address the problems. “The things that bubbled up are pretty amazing,” Ms. Fromer told the Light.

“By no means did it come across that every rancher is doing this,” she said, but added that “people need to know about these things. We need to bring the voiceless a voice.” 

Commissioner Kristen Nash noted at last week’s gathering that, in the past, the commission had spent much of its time and resources on an awards ceremony—which, though important, meant there was less time for other efforts.

Another commissioner, Kathy Williams, added that the new commission was “much more interested in getting involved in policy.”