By Devika Ghai
Decades after Edward R Murrow’s Harvest of Shame documentary and John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, U.S. farmworkers still face many of the same problems: extreme poverty punctuated by substandard housing and lack of access to clean water, adequate food, healthcare, and education.
Farmworkers represent the backbone and marrow of our agricultural economy. Performing some of the most demanding manual labor in any economic sector, farmworkers are also one of the least protected groups from the harms they can experience on the job.
Farmworker unions are much stronger now than in the 1960s, yet most farmworkers do not benefit from union representation and harsh working conditions continue. Routine problems can include exposure to highly hazardous pesticides, abusive employers and even slavery.
Laws Don’t Protect Farmworkers from Pesticides
Agricultural workers face greater threats from pesticide exposure—including acute poisonings and long-term effects such as cancer, birth defects and learning disabilities—than any other sector of society.
Farmworkers, and often their children, are regularly exposed to pesticides in many ways: mixing or applying pesticides; planting, weeding, thinning, irrigating, pruning, harvesting, and processing crops; or living in or near treated fields. Studies show that pesticides carried from field to home on parents’ clothing and skin put farmworker children at risk.
“I am the pesticide sprayer and I often get wet with the liquid that they use on the plants. My clothing does not protect me, it is too thin and my arms get wet. I have had headaches, dizziness, nausea, stomach pain and vomiting.” – Julio, excerpted from 1999 CA county report
Immigration Politics Keep Workers at Risk
As political rhetoric swirls around the issue of undocumented workers, little is done to address the dangers of pesticide exposure faced daily by families who cross the border to harvest US strawberries, apples or broccoli.
Undocumented workers are less likely to seek medical care when exposed to pesticides, and almost never report poisonings. Whatever your political stance on immigration, the result of the current system is that hundreds of workers – many of them women and children - suffer from pesticide-related illnesses every year.
Thoughtful reform of U.S. immigration policies could be a major step toward acknowledging and addressing the shameful working conditions faced by thousands of migrant farmworkers every year.
Safe, Fair Food Benefits Farmworkers
A healthy, safe and fair food system would protect the health and serve the economic needs of farmworkers, farmers, rural communities and consumers. Shifting away from reliance on hazardous pesticides is a key step toward this goal. Also essential is bringing decision-making power back to the farm. Currently, corporate giants control everything from seeds and chemical farm inputs to the purchase, processing and marketing of farm products.
This tectonic shift is already well underway; as local markets grow, farmers demand more control of inputs and production on their own farms, and farmworkers experience and support the safer and healthier working conditions resulting from sustainable farming.
Devika Ghai, works for the Pesticide Action Network, which calls for a healthy, safe and fair food system that protects and promotes the health of farmworkers and their families.