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California Farmworkers Often Forced to Live in Squalor, Says Report

4:09 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

For California’s farmworkers, toiling all day in the brutal, sun-scorched fields is hard enough; the homes they return to each night are often in even worse conditions.

Originally posted at In These Times

For California’s farmworkers, toiling all day in the brutal, sun-scorched fields is hard enough; the homes they return to each night are often in even worse conditions. Though the reforms won by previous generations have extended basic labor and safety protections to seasonal and immigrant farmworkers, many remain shut out of the right to decent accommodations.

According to a new report published by California Rural Legal Assistance (CRLA), the housing crisis in the agricultural workforce has worsened over the last generation. Despite the locavore fads and slow-food diets that have infused today’s farm-fresh produce with an air of glamour, as a workplace, the fields still echo the social marginalization and scandalous poverty that sparked the groundbreaking grape boycott of the late 1960s.

Don Villarejo, the longtime farmworker advocate who authored the report, tells In These Times that growers have “systematically” reduced investment in farmworker housing over the past 25 years in order to reduce overhead costs and to avoid the trouble of meeting state and federal regulations, which were established as part of a broader overhaul of agricultural labor, health and safety standards during the 1960s and 1980s. According to Villarejo, workers’ modern material circumstances are little improved from the old days of the Bracero system. That initiative—the precursor to our modern-day guestworker migrant program—became notorious for shunting laborers into spartan cabins, tents and other inhospitable dwellings on the farms themselves, beset with entrenched poverty and unhealthy, brutish conditions. Read the rest of this entry →

Workers Can ‘Don and Doff’ Off the Clock, Says Court

9:18 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

(Bill Jacobus / Flickr / Creative Commons)

Originally published at In These Times

For workers in dangerous industries, safety should be non-negotiable. But the Supreme Court may have just given employers a little more leeway to put critical protections for workers on the table when bargaining over labor contracts.

In a unanimous decision issued last month in Sandifer v. United States Steel Corporation, the Supreme Court ruled against a group of steelworkers who argued that they should be compensated for the time they spend suiting up before and after their workdays, or “donning and doffing” protective gear including hard hats and safety glasses. Workers at U.S. Steel’s Gary Works in Indiana had sought compensation for what they believed were unpaid overtime wages, earned during their time spent changing into and out of their work clothes, which they argued was not properly clocked.

But the justices ultimately ruled that the steel company’s labor contract did not require the company to count the “donning and doffing” of workers’ clothes as paid overtime labor under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), meaning that the workers will lose their claim to back pay for the time spent putting on and taking off their gear.

The Sandifer ruling is limited from a legal standpoint, as it applies only to section 203(o), an obscure provision of the FLSA governing wage negotiations in collectively-bargained union contracts. According to an analysis in legal news outlet SCOTUS Blog, section 203(o), a 1949 amendment to the FLSA, “allows collective-bargaining agreements to exclude time spent ‘changing clothes’ from the work time subject to the statute.”  Read the rest of this entry →

A New Day, A New Danger: Temporary Workers Face Safety Hazards at Work

3:19 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Representatives from the advocacy group Chicago Workers’ Collaborative are taking OSHA to task for historically failing to protect temporary low-wage workers. (Chicago Workers’ Collaborative)

Originally published at In These Times

Rosa Ramirez, a 49-year-old Mexican immigrant and mother in Illinois, knew something was odd about the plastics factory where her temporary-labor agency had sent her. “From the minute one walks into that factory, one is hit by this incredible odor of [chemical] thinner … It just goes right through you,” she recalled through an interpreter in an interview with Working In These Times.

But soon, the noxious smell was the least of her concerns. While making plastic molds on her first—and last—day in April, Ramirez suffered a searingly painful burn on her hand. When she tried to report the injury to her temp-work agency, Staffing Network, she says dispatchers laughed at her and called the wound minor, pressuring her to drop the issue.

Looking back now, she remembers seeing several other people at the plastics factory with burns on their arms and hands. But as Ramirez points out, many temporary workers don’t report injuries to avoid potential employer retaliation. “[We're] very afraid of saying anything for fear of losing our jobs,” she says, who notes that she hasn’t been called back to work by Staffing Network since she, as she puts it, “stood up for [her] rights.”

Temporary workers, or “temps,” often go into work every day without even knowing what their job will entail, let alone what safety precautions they should take. These “contingent laborers” form a growing share of the workforce that is increasingly anonymous, dispersed, disorganized and, sometimes, in dire danger.

Temps occupy nearly every sector today, including day-labor builders, office staffers and food-processing workers. They may be stepping in as you vacation this holiday season, running Big Box retail warehouses on Black Friday or fulfilling your gift mail-order. The one thing all these positions all have in common, though, is their high “cost-efficiency.” This labor pool is usually indirectly hired by companies through subcontractors, allowing the company to generally avoid dealing with contracts, pensions, unions or organizing by workers—and to have an additional buffer against liability when workers fall at a construction site or faint from chemical fumes. And the temps who fill these roles–who comprise an estimated 2.8 percent or more of the workforce—are disproportionately female and of color, further reinforcing the systemic gender and racial inequalities present in the American job market.

According to the worker advocacy group Chicago Workers’ Collaborative (CWC), of which Ramirez is now a member, the group’s temp members earn just $11,000 per year on average and “labor for minimum wages during short periods of time without any benefits such as sick days, holidays, vacations, or health insurance.” Whether they’re just trying to make ends meet this month or have become long-term “permatemps,” they form part of a seldom-regarded workforce that provides contracted manpower and logistics services for some of the largest and most prominent commercial brands, such as Wal-Mart and Nike. 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:

Read the rest of this entry →

Research Raises More Toxic Health Concerns for Popcorn Workers

7:33 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

(NIOSH)

Originally posted on In These Times

The aroma of hot buttered popcorn evokes all sorts of childhood nostalgia, but for many workers, those savory vapors pose a modern industrial health hazard.

Evidence has been building over the years of a respiratory illness primarily afflicting factory workers exposed to the microwave-popcorn butter flavorant, diacetyl (DA). Now, researchers have discovered another potential hazard related to DA: long-term risk of Alzheimer’s disease.

Researchers with the University of Minnesota’s Center for Drug Design studied the effect of the “ubiquitous butter-flavoring agent” and detected an association with “long-term neurological toxicity,” particularly among industrial workers who are smothered in the stuff every day.

The federal government has in recent years urged the industry to limit potentially toxic workplace exposures to DA, but it has not defined an explicit regulatory exposure limit. Federal authorities have published advisories for employers to control DA exposure, but like many chemicals wafting across the country’s assembly lines and pervading our processed foods, DA (and similar chemical substitutes) are still amply used, with little restriction on behalf of public health.

Dr. Swati More, one of the study’s authors, says the findings should raise concerns that, in addition to posing respiratory risks, DA exposure “may lead to brain deterioration. The question that needs to be answered is, how much of diacetyl does one need to consume and for how long.”

Though the University of Minnesota study focuses on long-term effects related to beta-amyloid protein clumping in the brain, and was conducted at only the cellular level (not on humans), it adds to a growing body of research on the toxic impacts linked to DA exposure. Academic, media and government investigations have revealed both anecdotal and epidemiological evidence of “popcorn lung.”

The main occupational health issue surrounding popcorn lung, which has been acknowledged by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), is bronchiolitis obliterans. (There is also some evidence of respiratory risk for extreme popcorn eaters.) Read the rest of this entry →

Despite New Rule on Livestock Antibiotics, Infection Risks Still Plague Workers, Communities

11:33 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Photo: USDA

Cross-posted from In These Times.

The Obama administration just made a move toward curbing one of the most toxic aspects of our food system, with a new Food and Drug Administration regulation on certain antibiotics used in livestock.

Still, massive amounts of medicine will continue to circulate through our food system. The environmental presence of these drugs underscores how deeply interconnected food production, public health, and workplace safety are, and how comprehensively our regulatory system has failed.

The new order restricts the “extra-label” or nonstandard uses of cephalosporins, which, according to the New York Times, “are among the most common antibiotics prescribed to treat pneumonia, strep throat, and skin and urinary tract infections.” Tightening livestock producers’ antibiotic use is a small sign that FDA is finally responding to scientific evidence of antibiotic-related disease risks. But the underlying question is, what is the stuff doing in our food in the first place? Read the rest of this entry →

Health Workers Deliver First Aid to Protest Movements

6:18 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Tahrir field hospital. (Kamal El Tawil via TwitPic)

Cross-posted from In These Times.

Warning: Defending your rights may be hazardous to your health. Potential side effects can include rubber bullets, tear gas, and batons wielded with impunity.

The recent uprisings around the world illustrate the physical risks involved in intense street protests. At the same time, movements are also discovering the connection between health and activism in another way, through medical workers joining the front lines to deploy their skills and their conviction.

Amid the brutal clashes with security forces at Tahrir Square, barebones field hospitals have held the line, thanks to a grassroots network of Tahrir doctors. One volunteer, Ahmed Adel, who has been aiding wounded protesters since January, told Ahram Online, “Treating the injured protesters here again makes me feel the revolution is about to be completed.”

But hospitals are by no means safe havens. Mohamed Fatouh, a leader of Tahrir Doctors, told the LA Times, “The people are refusing to go to the ambulances because they think they go to the general hospitals, and from there they go to the police.” Read the rest of this entry →

In Anti-Government Politics, “Time-Out” on Regulation versus Shortened Lives

5:21 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Carol Simpson Cartoonwork

Cross-posted from In These Times

Seizing upon a reliable “job creation” talking point, conservatives have stoked their war against “big government” by trying to freeze federal actions to protect the public.

The proposed “Regulatory Time-Out Act,” which would impose a one-year moratorium on “significant” new regulations, takes aim at regulations that keep industry from dumping poison in rivers or accidentally blowing up factory workers—in other words, policies that capitalists call “job killers.”

According to the champion of the bill, Sen. Susan Collins, “significant” rules are those “costing more than $100 million per year,” and those projected to “have an adverse impact on jobs, the economy, or our international competitiveness.” The guiding principle of this proposed regulatory kill-switch is a cold cost-benefit analysis that weighs profitability against people’s health and safety.

This particular bill may not make it through Congress, but it reflects the anti-regulatory mentality on the Hill by offering a convenient tool for undermining the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)—that clean-air promoting, worker-protecting, “job killing organization of America,” which presidential hopeful Michele Bachmann has promised to shutter once and for all if elected.

Zeroing in on a textbook example of regulatory evil-doing, the measure seems to aim directly at a planned EPA regulation that would reduce emissions from boilers. According to a federal analysis, the pending boiler MACT rule would target tens of thousands of boilers at in various facilities including refineries, chemical plants, universities and commercial buildings, along with dozens of solid waste incinerators. The rule would reduce public exposure to mercury, soot and other toxics linked to cancer, child developmental problems, and premature death. Read the rest of this entry →