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