City leaders will decide on a proposal to build a massive H2A labor camp that would fundamentally change the working and living conditions of farmworkers on the Central Coast.

California has never seen an H-2A housing proposal near the magnitude of the Donati labor camp project, which could hold over one in 10 farmworkers in Santa Barbara County.

This application to put 3,600 bunk beds for H-2A farmworkers in an industrial area on the outskirts of town would more than double Santa Maria’s guest worker population, making our community California’s H-2A epicenter.

In recent years the Central Coast has seen explosive growth of the federal H-2A program, a “guestworker” program that promises to be a less exploitative version of the Bracero program, but is already notorious for labor abuses. This project would set a new precedent for the massive shift to H-2A labor in our region and seriously hurt local farmworker families who have sacrificed as essential workers throughout this pandemic.

Building an H-2A labor camp at this scale would be an ominous step backwards to the Bracero era, threatening the strides of progress we’ve made for better working and living conditions for farmworkers in California over the past half century.

Since the end of the Bracero program, farmworkers across the state and in Santa Maria have become integrated into our communities rather than isolated in migrant labor camps, allowing many to raise families here, get involved in their neighborhoods, and learn more about their rights in the fields.

Growers blame the shift to H-2A on a supposed labor shortage. But judging by the three high-profile strikes on Santa Maria farms this last year, perhaps the real shortage is workers willing to do deadly jobs for wages that can’t keep up with Central Coast rents.

H-2A labor camps have been a hotbed of COVID outbreaks up and down the Central Coast by cramming workers in crowded living spaces. This project meets the bare minimum of federal requirements: 50 square feet of sleeping space per worker, and 10 workers to each toilet and shower.

Already we have seen the devastating results of inhumane housing conditions including the death of a worker after a massive COVID-19 outbreak at Bonipak’s H-2A hotel, may Leo Begario Chavez-Alvarado rest in peace.

Proposed for an isolated part of the city with no exterior doors, workers would be kept from information or services from local agencies, forced to rely on their employer who controls their housing, food,transportation and immigration status.

Regardless of personal opinions about the H-2A program it is clear from a planning perspective that this massive labor camp is incompatible with the area it’s proposed for. Developer Dan Blough wants to build this project in Area 9, home to a metal recycling plant and several coolers and zoned to allow for worse projects, such as chemical plants and oil refineries.

Does this sound like a place where people should live? 

Area 9 is unfit for healthy living conditions, but Dan Blough wants the city to amend the zoning code solely for this labor camp to be built. If the city wants to change the vision for Area 9, our community and especially neighbors and homeowners in the surrounding Westgate neighborhoods deserve a say beyond the whims of a developer trying to make a buck.

Luckily, this conversation can soon happen within the General Plan process happening right now, where city leaders are shaping our zoning and development for the coming years. Rather than rush through a zoning change for a shortsighted project, we should be engaging residents and stakeholders to discuss what Southwest Santa Maria really needs.

As an organization working with local farmworker families, we know essential workers need family housing with schools, parks, and shopping nearby. Places where you can live and raise children. Not a labor camp of cramped bunks in an industrial zone two miles from the nearest grocery store.

We can do better for our essential farmworkers than return to the Bracero era. And we can do better for Santa Maria, with a real community vision for Area 9 and Southwest Santa Maria as part of an inclusive and transparent General Plan process.

Rebeca Garcia is a policy advocate for CAUSE in Santa Maria.

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