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Farmworkers Face Silent Spring in the Fields

5:30 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

(jetsandzepplins/Flickr/Creative Commons)

Some lawmakers in Washington may be losing sleep in the coming weeks as they mull over proposed immigration reform legislation. But many migrant children are haunted at night for a different reason—the quiet nightmare of noxious winds that fill their bedrooms with toxic fumes, a hidden chemical disaster looming over the fields where their parents work.

The promise of legalization through legislation won’t bring relief for those families, who toil on industrial farms and, with or without work authorization, labor every day in poisonous environments. Regulators and lawmakers have largely ignored these chemical hazards; the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has not updated its Worker Protection Standard for pesticide exposures in 20 years. So advocates for farmworkers have taken their struggle to court.

Pesticide Action Network of North AmericaUnited Farm Workers and other public health and worker organizations filed a petition on July 24 in the 9th Circuit federal appeals court in San Francisco to compel the EPA to enact new pesticide protections for children. The groups, represented by Farmworker Justice and Earthjustice, are specifically demanding regulations on pesticide “drift”: the toxins that waft from the crops to the kitchen tables and playgrounds of surrounding neighborhoods.

The petition, urging action on an earlier challenge filed in 2009, specifically demands that EPA evaluate pesticide drift risks and implement safeguards such as buffer zones “near homes, schools, parks and daycare centers, or wherever children congregate.” Studies have linked pesticide exposures to reproductive health and childhood development problems as well as cancer and respiratory ailments.

recent report by Farmworker Justice highlighted the experience of Graciela, a fern crop worker whose daughter was diagnosed with leukemia at 15—a condition Graciela attributes to the health risks the family faced when they went to the fields together:

In order to cut the ferns and get those nice long stems that we need, we have to put our faces practically down into them. I realize now how dangerous this is. We are breathing in those pesticides all day long, and how could they not cause us harm.

The current litigation focuses on the EPA’s failure to act on a 2006 congressional mandate to issue protections for children against pesticide drift. But the agency has a long track record of heel-dragging on many pesticide issues.

Due to a division in the regulatory structure, pesticide safety for farmworkers is governed by the EPA, rather than the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), which regulates chemicals in other industrial workplaces. Under the current weak EPA standards, workers are generally offered only minimal safety information on pesticides. Moreover, with lax labeling requirements, workers often cannot read the English labels on pesticide products that state hazard precautions and instructions for safe handling decontamination. Earth Justice points out that the EPA’s standard “is far more lenient than OSHA rules,” revealing a structural inequity in the labor regulatory regime. Farmworker activists went to Washington in July to urge officials to enact measures such as requiring protective equipment and monitoring exposed workers’ health. Read the rest of this entry →

Why Safer Food Workers Mean Safer Food

5:10 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

New Department of Agriculture ‘reforms’ speed up the lines of poultry processing while shifting the onus of inspection onto workers. (Courtesy of the United Food and Commercial Workers)

Originally posted at In These Times

Americans these days are nervous about what they eat, and they should be, what with outbreaks of foodborne illnesses, meat pumped with veterinary drugs and genetically modified organisms creeping into our groceries. And in May, when the iconic brand of Smithfield Foods was bought by a Chinese multinational, there seemed to be still more cause for alarm. China seems even more rife with food hazards: rivers brimming with pig carcasses, poisonous baby formula, lakes of toxic waste.

But in both hemispheres, reports about health and safety scares tend to gloss over an underlying malaise afflicting the food system: the many hazards that are concentrated further up in the production chain, in the slaughterhouses and processing plants where corporations regularly subordinate workers’ health and safety, along with public health concerns, to their insatiable hunger for profits.

A 2011 petition filed with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights by the Midwest Coalition for Human Rights and Nebraska Appleseed described the unsavory conditions that U.S. meat-processing workers face every day:

Processors require their line employees to work at an extremely fast pace to keep up with these demands. The work is performed in very dangerous conditions: floors are slippery with grease, blood, and fat; temperatures are extremely cold or hot, and the work is arduous and repetitive—employees make upwards of 20,000 cuts a day.

In a 2012 report on labor conditions in the livestock industry by the Midwest Coalition, an Iowa plant worker testified, “Many workers are harmed, there is [not] enough time to do our tasks, the speed is so fast and we have to stretch ourselves to do the pieces. We are always working beyond the capacity of our bodies.”

Health hazards are intensified by a shopfloor culture that exploits and disempowers workers.Union membership has been plummeting since the 1980s. With low wages and massive stress, the sector relies heavily on immigrant workers, who may often be intimidated and silenced by the threat of being unfairly punished or fired for speaking out on health and safety problems.

Under such conditions, should consumers be shocked that food quality is endangered, too? These same factories and slaughterhouses have brought us arsenic-laced chicken and livestock laden with antibiotic-resistant pathogens. A recent USDA Inspector General report on pork plants found that regulators frequently failed to adequately enforce safety standards, while many facilities were cited for issues like mishandling hogs during slaughter, fecal contamination and pest-infested “kill floors.”

Remedying these problems–from toxic pork to musculoskeletal injuries–requires recognizing the connection between the regulatory failures across the industry as a workplace and a food supply.

Tom O’Connor, executive director of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health, says the safety implications for the food produced in these plants should concern everyone. “It stands to reason that in a workplace where there’s a high level of pressure on workers to work as fast and to not report hazards, the same thing can happen in terms of quality control or food quality.”

The poultry industry illustrates the potential nexus between workplace conditions and the quality of the food it churns out. A recent catastrophic chemical fire at a Chinese poultry plant that killed 120 workers made international headlines. But silent dangers stalk U.S. facilities as well. On top of abuse and harassment from bosses, repetitive-stress injuries are prevalent in poultry plants, often leading to debilitating chronic pain that makes workers’ lives miserable.

And the job may soon get even more painful. The USDA has sought to “modernize” safety monitoring by essentially removing many inspectors from the lines and instead having plant workers perform visual quality checks, while using antimicrobial chemicals to help sanitize birds. At the same time, the proposed scheme would pump production by allowing faster processing speeds. So while workers cut up carcasses, whipping past them at a rate of up to 175 a minute, they are supposed to watch for unhealthy-looking chickens simultaneously. Studies on pilots of this program have revealed alarming rates of error in catching unsanitary birds. But consumers should also be alarmed about the greater danger experienced by workers as production reaches even more insane speeds, supposedly for greater efficiency. The USDA’s proposed reforms essentially do not contemplate their implications for worker safety.

This disconnect between food quality and workers’ health reflects a profound regulatory gap, not only because unhealthy workplaces may lead to unhealthy meat, but because safe workplaces protect public health.

Celeste Monforton, a lecturer at George Washington University School of Public Health, notes that workers could play an important role in safety, but are constrained by brutal working conditions:

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Farmworkers Dig Into the New ‘Blue Card’ Plan

1:03 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Originally posted at In These Times

A child rallies in support of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in Tampa, Fla., highlighting undocumented farm workers' critical role in food production. (National Farm Worker Ministry / Flickr / Creative Commons)

Last week, immigrants’ rights groups finally got the papers they’ve been waiting for, an 844-page whopper of a bill that attempts to “fix” the immigration system by promising a little bit to everyone: businesses get workers, workers get jobs and millions of undocumented people get an opportunity to gain citizenship.

One section of the bill sums up the political calculus underlying the legislation: In the plan to overhaul the guestworker system on U.S. farms—the seedbed of the oldest and roughest forms of migrant labor—we can see the strained balance between the interests of profit and the interests of people in determining who gets to become “American.”

Under the current legislative proposal, undocumented farmworkers would receive a new kind of labor visa—called a “Blue Card”—which would enable them to work legally with certain minimum wage guarantees and federal entitlements, like workers’ compensation. These visas, capped at 112,000 annually (a fraction of the undocumented farmworker population of roughly 500,000 to 900,000) would also grant “portability” to workers—i.e., autonomy to switch employers so they’re not chained to a single workplace.

There are additional provisions to protect workers who report labor violations and to make it easier for them to qualify for immigration relief as victims of crime if they’ve been abused or exploited. International labor recruitment—the use of private “middle man” agencies to arrange work visas and job placements—would be more tightly regulated, closing some of the loopholes in the current system that allow recruiters to saddle migrants with exorbitant fees or tie them to abusive, unregulated employers. And the centerpiece of the plan is the “path to citizenship,” which would theoretically allow immigrant workers who are currently undocumented to “legalize.”

But the path to citizenship is fraught with some impossibly high hurdles: The process to gain permanent residency could take about 10 years (the bill provides a shorter timeframe for farmworkers, who are viewed as a special labor category because of their role in the food production system), and an even longer wait to officially naturalize. Activists fear that the various eligibility requirements, from background checks to heavy fees, may end up pricing hundreds of thousands of people out of a green card.

Daniel Sheehan, executive director of the Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs (AFOP), tells In These Times via email that the legalization process might prove prohibitively costly for farmworkers in particular. “Because they are often paid poverty wages and suffer wage theft and other abuses, they may not be able to pay high fines required to secure citizenship,” he says.

Additionally, labor activists note that even if they’re granted legal status, immigrants will continue to face draconian restrictions on public health care benefits, which bar access to Medicaid programs for their first several years of legal residency.

In other words, many migrant farmworkers would have a right to collect a paycheck but lack the right to basic medical care, even when their job gives them a repetitive stress injury or poisons them with pesticide sprays.

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How the Poultry Industry Is Grinding Up Workers’ Health and Rights

3:04 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Originally posted at In These Times

Juan (not his real name) was instructed to get back to work after falling while lifting an 80-pound box of chicken. X-rays later showed two fractured vertebrae. He was fired, and the employer has not paid any of his medical bills.

Walk through any supermarket poultry section and you can marvel at the wonders of the modern food processing industry: antiseptic aisles packed with gleaming, plump shrink-wrapped chickens, sold at bargain prices under the labels of trusted agribusiness brands like Tyson and Pilgrim’s. But all that quality meat doesn’t come cheap: it’s paid for dearly by factory workers who brave injury, abuse and coercion every day on assembly lines running at increasingly deadly speeds.

According to newly published research on Alabama poultry workers by the civil rights group Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), the business model of the sector has sacrificed health and safety on the factory floor for the Tayloristic efficiency demanded by American appetites.

The supersized industry, which churns out about 50 pounds of chicken per American stomach annually, dominates many struggling towns in Alabama, a mostly non-union state, supporting about 10 percent of the local economy and some 75,000 jobsBut according to the SPLC’s researchers, the production line is butchering workers’ health:

Nearly three-quarters of the poultry workers interviewed for this report described suffering some type of significant work-related injury or illness. In spite of many factors that lead to undercounting of injuries in poultry plants, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) reported an injury rate of 5.9 percent for poultry processing workers in 2010, a rate that is more than 50 percent higher than the 3.8 percent injury rate for all U.S. workers.

Alabama workers interviewed by the SPLC reported being routinely subjected to unsafe working conditions that led to severe health threats, from repetitive stress injuries to respiratory issues to chemical burns. Adding insult to injury, employers often ignored workers’ debilitating problems or punished them for asserting their rights. Evoking images reminiscent of Upton Sinclair’s century-old expose on the meat-packing industry The Jungle, workers reported that problems like crippling hand pain would be diverted to the company nurse, rather than more intensive care by an outside doctor. Others were fired before they could become more of a liability.

One worker, a black woman in her 30s, recounted in an interview being pressured to shield her company from responsibility for her injury:

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Pesticide Threat Looms Large Over Farmworker Families

3:58 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Among agricultural workers such as these fruit pickers in Oxnard, Calif., birth defects and cancers are alarmingly high. (Alex E. Proimos / Flickr / Creative Commons)

Originally posted at In These Times

No matter how good your next meal tastes, it’s likely it made society ill.

new analysis by the Pesticide Action Network North America (PAN) draws a disturbing connection between pesticides in our food system and serious health problems among women and children. The report reviews empirical research linking agricultural chemicals to birth defects, neurological disorders, childhood cancers and reproductive problems.

Some of these chemicals make their way into the foods we eat, but they are more acutely concentrated in the environments surrounding farmlands. Children in or near farming areas can be exposed through myriad channels, from contaminated soil to the air in playgrounds.

But children in farmworker communities are especially at risk. While the report confirms the growing public concerns about health risks permeating our food chain, it also shows how socioeconomic inequalities can shovel many of the worst effects onto exploited, impoverished workers.

There’s been much public debate over the importance of organic produce, sustainable farming and regulating genetically modified foods–usually spurred by concerns over consumer health or animal rights. We hear less about the safety concerns that affect the workers who handle our fruits and vegetables before anyone else. For many Latino migrant workers, there’s no equivalent of a comprehensive safety label–no option to avoid the ubiquitous poisons in the field. Many worry that to complain about working conditions would mean being fired. Others simply–and quite reasonably–have little faith in the anemic government regulatory systems. Read the rest of this entry →

Filipino Banana Workers Frustrated in Battle Over Dole’s Pesticides

12:28 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Aidan Wojtas / Flickr / Creative Commons

Originally posted at In These Times

You might think that neoliberal globalization has replaced the banana republics of the last century. But inside the engines of industrial agriculture, the rot of the old fruit empires still festers. The long struggle of a group of Filipino banana workers to hold Dole accountable for toxic exposures reminds us that international capital still has a lot more clout than international law.

The lawsuit, involving about three thousand Filipino workers, claims that in the 1980s, Dole and other companies damaged the health of banana workers in Davao, a remote region of the Philippines, by using the highly toxic pesticide DBCP. The alleged exposures took place years after DBCP was “banned from general use” by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in the late 1970s. The toxin–a product of Dow Chemical–has been linked to various potential health problems, such as asthma, cancer, sterility and miscarriages.

But the Los Angeles Superior Court dismissed the suit, citing technical issues related to California’s statute of limitations rules. Claire Espina, a lawyer for the workers, said the ruling was an unfair application of state law.

Espina tells In These Times that the goal was simply to force Dole to take responsibility for a mass assault on workers’ health. “To know that it was banned, and to push for it anyway and to knowingly use it [in the Philippines]–I think that conduct like that merits punitive damages,” she says. Read the rest of this entry →

Working With Your Rapist as Your Supervisor? The Widespread Sexual Abuse of Women in Farm Work

12:39 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Cross-posted from Alternet.

There aren’t many jobs in the U.S. that are tougher than farmwork–spending the day picking crops under a sweltering sun, earning just enough to survive, jumping from one unstable seasonal job to another. But the job is especially unbearable if you have to work yourself to exhaustion all day under the watch of the man who raped you.

There have over the years been numerous reports of widespread sexual abuse of women farmworkers–everything from being called demeaning names by supervisors to brutal sexual assault. Many of the victims suffer in silence, cut off from law enforcement and social services and fearful of losing their jobs if they come forward to authorities, according to a report on sexual violence in agricultural work by Human Rights Watch.

The report, based on dozens of interviews with survivors and advocates, outlines the multiple barriers to justice that women face–not just institutional sexism but also crippling poverty and discrimination in law enforcement. Women may feel they have little choice but to suffer humiliating treatment and abuse in order to support their families. The consequences of reporting sexual violence can be devastating for the whole household, because the boss might fire both the victim and the family members who work alongside her. Read the rest of this entry →

Child Labor and Agribusiness Churn Washington’s Food Fight

10:13 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Image: Human Rights Watch

Cross-posted from In these Times

For a moment in Washington, it seemed like the White House was finally getting serious about reforming the agricultural labor system, with a common sense rule about preventing harm to child workers. But under pressure from the agribusiness lobby, the administration appears to have retreated from an initiative to tighten protection for childrens’ safety and health in agricultural jobs.

As we’ve reported previously, the move was seen by labor and child rights groups as a shameless pander to anti-regulatory forces in Washington. Activists have for years reported on the systematic exploitation of children on farms. Last year many hoped the Labor Department would finally respond to alarming injury and death rates by curbing the most hazardous forms of agricultural work for kids under 16, including restrictions on high-risk work in tobacco production, and limiting dangerous tasks involving certain farm equipment and animals.

Then advocates were distressed when the proposed reforms were held up under review by the White House Office of Management and Budget, the administration’s gatekeeper for regulatory proposals. The final affront came in April when the Labor Department announced that it was pulling the proposal in response to opposition from producers.

While the new rules would have explicitly exempted family farms, critics painted the measure as an assault on the rural way of life, glossing over the need to shield kids, many from migrant families, from the day-to-day brutality of industrial farm labor. The administration not only recycled these whitewashed arguments, but even scrubbed its own website of information explaining the proposal, according to the Pump Handle.

Actually, the migrant children in the fields today, facing severe poverty and limited educational opportunities, starkly represent how far modern industrial farming has drifted from the bygone bucolic ideal of the family farm. Read the rest of this entry →

Citing ‘Tradition,’ Big Ag Fights Reforms for Child Farmworkers

7:26 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

(Human Rights Watch, hrw.org)

Cross-posted from In These Times.

“[When I was 12] they gave me my first knife. Week after week I was cutting myself. Every week I had a new scar. My hands have a lot of stories.”

–17-year-old boy who started working at age 11 in Michigan (Human Rights Watch)

America’s farm workers have always had it tough, toiling for endless hours in the fields under brutal conditions. But those workers do benefit from a unique income subsidy in the country’s industrial farming system: children.

In every region of the country, bountiful harvests are regularly gathered by the tender hands of child poverty: several hundred thousand kids work on farms, often just to help their families survive. Those children who deliver crisp peppers and sweet grapes to the mouths of other kids every day represent the devastating social toll of the dysfunctional food industry.

The Child Labor Coalition, which advocates for the rights of exploited children around the world, documents a cornupcopia of abuses in the backyard of a global superpower:

•  More children die in agriculture than in any other industry.

•  According to the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), between 1995 and 2002, an estimated 907 youth died on American farms—that’s well over 100 preventable deaths of youth per year.

•  In 2011, 12 of the 16 children under the age of 16 who suffered fatal occupational injuries worked in crop production, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

•  When you include older children, more than half of all workers under age 18 who died from work-related injuries worked in crop production.

Advocates have for months been pressing the Labor Department to finalize a rule change that would help shield child farm workers from some of the most severe occupational hazards, such as handling pesticides and dangerous farm equipment, and would beef up protections for workers under age 16 (currently, children as young as 12 can legally work on farms, thanks to a loophole in federal labor law, and many younger ones have worked illegally, according to recent reports).

The reforms would largely impact youth in the migrant communities that fuel the agricultural labor force, filled with poor and Latino workers who are extremely vulnerable to abuse. Read the rest of this entry →

Banana Republic Legacy Thrives in Today’s Latin America

6:25 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Photo: STITCH via Labor Is Not a Commodity (laborrightsblog.typepad.com)

Cross-posted from In These Times.

The term “banana republic” has become a cliche to describe economic imperialism throughout history, but the legacy of colonialism persists in Latin America today. The tradition of predatory capitalism echoed in the recent death of Miguel Angel González Ramírez, a member of the Izabal banana workers’ union SITRABI in Guatemala.

According to the International Trade Union Confederation, the unionist was “shot several times whilst carrying his young child in his arms.” This seems to be another casualty in a labor battle between labor and corporateers who would rather see workers shed blood than be paid fair wages.

The ITUC has demanded an official investigation, noting that in the past year several unionists have been killed or targeted with threats. Last October, SITRABI member Pablino Yaque Cervantes was shot by an unidentified attacker, according to U.S. Labor Education in the Americas Project (US LEAP).

Manuela Chávez of the ITUC’s Department of Human and Trade Union Rights told In these Times, “Freedom of association and the right to organize and bargain collectively have been endangered by a very high anti-union repression for years,” adding that the threats to unionists are aggravated by government inaction. Read the rest of this entry →