“Every time we sit at a table to enjoy the fruits and grain and vegetables from our good earth, remember that they come from the work of men and women and children who have been exploited for generations.”
César Chávez, Co-Founder, United Farm Workers

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Article by VaLerie K

In a July 2nd interview of Dr. Robert A. Weinberg, Ph.D. about his research on the connection between lifestyle and cancer risk on Philly Public Radio’s “Radio Times”, when a caller asked about pesticides in food, host Tracy Matisak sat silent while her guest uttered a remarkably irresponsible and reprehensible statement:

As far as I know the only people in whom cancer has ever been induced by let’s say pesticides, are agricultural workers who are in contact with vast amounts of pesticides. The fact is that to my knowledge, not a single human being in this country has ever developed cancer because of a consequence of exposure to trace amounts of pesticides that are present in food.”

I couldn’t believe my ears when he dismissed the suffering of farm workers as a tangential bit of information, and essentially promoted the attitude that as long as it isn’t giving ME cancer, there’s nothing to worry about. Nice. Way to think globally, Doctor!

I realize that in the myopic mindset too often found in the research world, Dr. Weinberg was not so much advocating human suffering as he was focusing on his particular point: that the end consumer is not at risk of cancer by eating produce that was treated with pesticides (which in itself is debatable), but even if that were true, there are a host of reasons not to buy from farms that use pesticides [to see Elizabeth Fiend‘s article about pesticide-free farming – CLICK HERE], and not all of them are short-term and selfish, some reasons actually take the environmentand the lives of others into account.

Farm Workers in the U.S.

Beyond just pesticides, there are a host of other ills visited upon agricultural workers in the U.S. – child labor, low wages, lack of health insurance, pesticide-related illness & death, birth defects, inadequate access to health care and the dangers of the agricultural industry such as using dangerous machinery without adequate safety precautions, climbing rickety ladders to pick fruit from trees, and prolonged exposure to the sun.

Sweltering Heat

This summer, news from California has brought to light a disturbing farm worker issue: heat-related deaths. Not illnesses, DEATHS. According to United Farm Workers – long-time activist organization dedicated to farm workers’ rights – there have been at least 4 heat-related deaths of farm workers in California this summer, as compared to 6 in the state in 2004 and 2005 combined.(1) An Associated Press news story released August 1st revealed an investigation into 12 deaths of possible heat-related causesin California this year.(2)

On May 14 of this year, Maria Isabel Vasquez Jimenez, who was 17 years old and pregnant, died “because her supervisors denied her access to shade and water as she pruned white wine grapevines for more than nine hours in nearly triple-digit heat at a Central Valley vineyard.”(3)

This is a serious problem, and especially considering that California was the first state ever to implement a heat-illness standard in 2005. Governor Schwarzenegger has promised to do everything he can, but If THEY can’t get it right, what’s happening elsewhere?

Pesticides

Ah yes, back to pesticides. Listen up, Dr. Weinberg and the staff of Radio Times …

“While not much has been done to study the long-term effects of pesticides on farm workers the research that has been done is alarming. According to the American Journal of Industrial Medicine (2001), ‘California farm workers have elevated levels of leukemia and stomach, uterine and brain cancer.’ According to studies done in Washington State by the Fred Hutchinson Center and the University of Washington (2002; 2004) toxic pesticides are showing up in the bodies of farm workers who thin fruit (92% of those tested), as well as their children (88% of those tested). Pesticide residue is moving from field to home.

What is so disconcerting is the fact that an estimated 1.2 billion pounds of highly toxic pesticides are sprayed on our food annually in the U.S. and only four states collect data about which pesticides are used where, when and in what amounts. Farm workers are at grave risk.” (4)

Child Labor

Not only are parents who work with pesticides exposing their children by bringing the toxins home on their clothes and bodies, in many cases their children are out working by their sides every day.

“These hardworking youth labor under more dangerous conditions than their contemporaries working in nonagricultural settings. They are routinely exposed to dangerous pesticides, sometimes working in fields still wet with poison, often given no opportunity to wash their hands before eating lunch. They risk heat exhaustion and dehydration, as their employers fail to provide enough water, or any at all. They suffer injuries from sharp knives, accidents with heavy equipment, falls from ladders. Repetitive motions in awkward and punishing poses can interfere with the proper growth of their bodies. Lack of sleep-because they are working too many hours-interferes with their schooling and increases their chances of injury. Depression affects them more often than other minors, a reflection of the cumulative stresses and burdens in their young lives. Only 55 percent of them will graduate from high school.

Incredibly, these juvenile workers are protected less under United States law than are juveniles working in safer occupations.” (5)

Dangerous work

“Agriculture is consistently ranked as one of the three most dangerous occupations in the United States.

Pesticide risks: Farmworkers suffer from the highest rate of toxic chemical injuries and skin disorders of any workers in the country, as well as significant rates of eye injuries.

Health concerns: Farmworkers face higher incidences than other wage-earners of heat stress, dermatitis, urinary tract infections, parasitic infections, and tuberculosis.

Poor health of children: Children of migrant farmworkers have higher rates of pesticide exposure, malnutrition and dental disease than the general population. Children of migrant farmworkers are also less likely to be fully immunized than other children.

Housing effects: Poor migrant housing conditions lead to increased prevalence of lead poisoning, respiratory illnesses, ear infections and diarrhea.

Limited insurance: Only ten percent of farmworkers report having employer-provided health insurance.

Obstacles to health care: Barriers to receiving health care include lack of transportation, limited hours of clinic service, cost of health care, limited or no interpreter service, and frequent relocation in search of farm work. Farm workers are not protected by sick leave and risk losing their jobs if they miss work.” (6)

Protest Movements

There are a number of protest movements, probably the best known is United Farm Workers, started in 1962 by César Chávez, farm worker, labor leader, and civil rights activist. You can go to the UFW website for news updates and action alerts. Sign the petition to Gov. Schwarzenegger to enact tougher laws to protect farm workers – CLICK HERE.

Farm worker activist groups abound across the country. At the 2000 Republican National Convention here in Philadelphia, BiG TeA PaRtY caught a speech by immigrant mushroom workers during a protest day devoted to health care. To watch video excerpt, CLICK ON MOVIE BELOW.

GET INVOLVED!

Contact one of these national support organizations linking the broader community with farmworkers:
National Farm Worker Ministry (NFWM)
Student Action with Farmworkers (SAF)

Find out more about actions you can take at the United Farm Workers website.

Ask at your local grocery or produce market where the produce came from, and if the store knows about the farm workers situation. Show that you care about this issue, spread the word.

Better yet, buy from local growers who don’t use pesticides.

References:
(1a) Data on heat-related farm worker deaths in California in 2008 (as of mid-July) from United Farm Workers website

(1b) Data on heat-related farm worker deaths in California in 2004-5 from a 2007 article in the News & Observer “Heat deaths on farms draw little notice”

(2) From Associated Press news story “State probes 12 possible worker heat deaths” By Garance Burke, August 1, 2008

(3) From Associated Press news story “Farm labor contractor fined in worker’s death”
By Garance Burke, July 23, 2008

(4) From an article on the Washington State Labor Council, AFL-CIO website, “Farm Workers and Pesticides”

(5) From the report “FINGERS TO THE BONE: UNITED STATES FAILURE TO PROTECT CHILD FARMWORKERS” on the Human Rights Watch website

(6) From the Duke University “Farm Workers Fact Sheet”, to read it CLICK HERE. This fact sheet was generated by Student Action with Farmworkers (SAF)

One Response to “Farm Workers in the U.S.”

  1. Teri Megill Says:

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