Farmworkers in the U.S.

Pesticides and Puerto Rico: When the Professional Becomes Personal

I had the privilege of participating in the East Coast Migrant Stream Forum for Agricultural Worker Health in Atlanta earlier this month. The annual Forum brings together outreach workers, advocates, medical professionals and many others who provide crucial health services to farmworkers. It is a great opportunity to learn from those who are working with farmworker communities on the ground, as well as share updates on what is happening at the federal level.

This year, one of my presentations focused on pesticide safety, including recent revisions to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)’s Worker Protection Standard (WPS) and best practices for identifying and treating pesticide exposure. I co-presented with Alma Galvan, Senior Program Manager of Environmental and Occupational Health at the Migrant Clinicians Network (MCN), and Dr. Jose Rodriguez, MD, Chief Medical Officer at the Castañer General Hospital in Lares, Puerto Rico.  

This was where the professional and personal collided for me. You see, I was born and raised in Hormigueros, Puerto Rico, a small town on the island’s west side, not too far from where Dr. Rodriguez lives and works. My parents, siblings, extended family and friends still live on the island. As a teenager, I often went camping in the mountains of Adjuntas, one of the five rural municipalities covered by Castañer General Hospital’s services.  

During the three weeks between Hurricane Maria’s landfall and our scheduled presentation, communication with Dr. Rodriguez, as with a lot of people on the island, was virtually nonexistent. We had resigned ourselves to doing the presentation without him, and then just a few days before the event, he was able to let us know that he was still planning to come. His arrival in Atlanta was no small feat given conditions on the island, but then again, Dr. Rodriguez is accustomed to producing miraculous results amidst seemingly hopeless circumstances.

Earlier this year, Hospital General Castañer received the EPA’s Environmental Champion Award for outstanding commitment to protecting and enhancing environmental quality and public health. Dr. Rodriguez is a leader in the identification and treatment of pesticide exposure, as well as other occupational health issues. He is a dedicated family physician and passionate advocate for his community. During our presentation, Dr. Rodriguez stressed the important role of community health advocates and local hospitals in identifying pesticide incidents and gathering and recording key information that can serve not only for more effective medical treatment, but also to support future legal and advocacy work.

During the Forum’s plenary session, Dr. Rodriguez also shared pictures of his hometown – bare trees, downed electricity poles, streams where roads used to be. He highlighted the most recent official statistics – almost half the population on the island still had no running water, and approximately 90% still had no electricity. The numbers themselves are staggering, but the many human examples of what those numbers mean are truly overwhelming. Another staggering statistic: approximately 80% of the island’s agriculture was decimated by the storm, including the island’s coffee, tropical fruit and poultry farms. As I write this a week later, I would love to report that much progress has been made, but based on information from both family updates and media reporting, that would be woefully inaccurate.  

Dr. Rodriguez also cautioned all of us about the impending public health emergency that looms over the island as recovery advances in fits and starts. He worries that the floods and landslides will lead to pesticide drift in both soil and water, including wells. Mosquito-borne illnesses like Zika, where much progress had been made before, may reappear as stagnant water remains. A lack of basic hygiene may give rise to communicable diseases, while malnutrition and a lack of potable water, especially among children and the elderly, will inevitably have significant health effects. Outbreaks of conjunctivitis and leptospirosis (a bacterial disease caused by contaminated water) have already been reported and many hospitals are only able to operate partially due to the lack of electricity and a shortage of medical supplies.

Amidst this dire picture, I am reassured by the work of individuals like Dr. Rodriguez, countless heroes who may never get recognition from a federal agency for providing such essential services to their communities, including farmworkers. The hurricane in Puerto Rico and other recent natural disasters in California, Texas and Florida have quite literally laid bare many of the inequalities and dangers that farmworkers face every day. This past month has been very difficult for many, but it has also reaffirmed the importance of fighting for farmworker communities – communities who are intimately familiar with both nature’s capacity for capriciousness and humans’ capacity for resilience.     

You can donate to Puerto Rican relief efforts through the Hispanic Federation.

 



 

Hope: Transforming agriculture to improve the lives of farmworkers |National Farmworker Awareness Week

We are delighted to host guest blogger LeAnne R. Ruzzamenti, Director of Marketing Communications for the Equitable Food Initiative

Equitable Food Initiative brings together growers, retailers, farmworkers and consumers to transform agriculture and create a safer, more equitable food system. It’s a lofty goal and one we believe can only be reached when everyone comes to the table, agrees that fundamental changes need to occur, and finds value for themselves in those changes.

Like many who become familiar with EFI, after touring a certified farm, Congresswoman Julia Brownley called EFI a “win, win, win – good for farmers, farmworkers and consumers”. That three-way win is only possible when all parties uphold their commitments to each other.  

Growers need to provide not only a fair work environment, but one where farmworkers are engaged to identify potential issues and protected when they speak up. Farmworkers need to stay engaged to ensure safer and efficient farm operations. Retailers and consumers need to recognize and support the effort to create a safer, more equitable food system by purchasing EFI-certified fruits and vegetables.   

Through its training and certification program, EFI has had great success in bringing all parties to the table to understand one another’s needs and make some of those necessary fundamental changes.

The success and certification doesn’t come easy. Growers and farmworkers need to find trust and rely on one another to reach the high standards set out under EFI certification. But it’s a worthy effort, and every day we hear reports from EFI certified farms of better working conditions, fewer absences and workers who are engaged and solving problems in ways that management would not have even considered.   

During Farmworker Awareness Week, we ask you to think about the seat that you hold at the table and how you are working with others to find and build shared value.

When you buy EFI-certified, Responsibly Grown, Farmworker Assured™ fruits and vegetables, you know that farmworkers were treated fairly, experienced decent working conditions and were engaged in following food safety and pest management protocols.

Celebrate Farmworker Awareness Week by making a commitment to buy EFI-certified fresh produce. Your support of the growers, retailers and farmworkers who have made a commitment to one another through EFI will bring even more people to the table.

Join EFI's email list today to stay informed on where to buy certified fruits and vegetables and take your seat at the table.



 

Resistance:Equal Pay for Farmworker Women | National Farmworker Awareness Week

Farmworker Justice is honored to host guest blogger Mónica Ramírez for today's post. Mónica serves as the Director of Gender Equity and Advocacy at National Hispanic Leadership Agenda (NHLA) and the Director of Gender Equality for the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement (LCLAA).

Today, more than 600,000 women make up the agricultural workforce.  They toil countless hours in agricultural fields, packing houses, and nurseries scattered across our nation. Though their work is extremely important and critical to our sustenance and the well-being of our economy, most people do not realize that such a large number of women are responsible for this work. Women’s History Month provides us with an opportunity to reflect on their many contributions. It is also a chance to consider how we can best join them in their efforts to resist anti-worker, anti-women, and anti-immigrant campaigns that harm them, their families, their interests, and our entire country.  

For decades, farmworker women leaders, like Mily Treviño Sauceda, Suguet Lopez, Ana Laura Bolaños, and many others, have been organizing to address the many issues that affect them, such as unequal pay, widespread sexual harassment, pregnancy discrimination, exposure to harmful chemicals and dangerous working conditions.  Farmworker women have been on the front lines educating their families and co-workers about their rights, not to mention teaching members of the public and the government about the many issues that they face and the priorities that they require to be safe, healthy, and productive at work.

Over the past twenty-five years, the National Hispanic Leadership Agenda, with NHLA members Farmworker Justice, Labor Council for Latin American Advancement (LCLAA) and additional organizations, has proudly worked together with the farmworker community to advance the policy concerns that are required to improve their living and working conditions.  Together over the years, we have successfully achieved improved health and safety standards, strengthened the worker protections, and increased accountability by the federal government to farmworkers. Yet more work remains to ensure that these gains are not lost and that we continue to build on the hard fought wins, including our work to promote and achieve gender equity for farmworker women.  

NHLA is committed to working with farmworker women to demand equal pay for equal work.  We have been loud and clear that we will not rest until farmworker women can work free of gender-based violence, not to mention all forms of employment discrimination.  In addition, we will not rest until immigrant farmworkers and all immigrants are able to live free of harassment, bullying, profiling, and anti-immigrant rhetoric and actions that currently leave farmworker women and their families feeling vulnerable and afraid.

We are proud to work closely with organizations like Lideres Campesinas en California, the Dolores Huerta Foundation, the United Farm Workers and many others that are committed to advancing the priorities of our nation’s agricultural workers.  Together, we will continue to march, organize, educate, raise awareness, demand what is just and resist all attempts to divide, to diminish, and to deny our collective power on behalf of one of our nation’s most important workforces.

 

Mónica Ramírez is a civil rights attorney, skilled public speaker, and an author. She has also been a women’s labor, farmworker, Latino and immigrant rights activist for more than two decades. Mónica is a nationally recognized subject matter expert on gender equity, including ending gender-based violence in the workplace against farmworker and immigrant women. She is the founder of several major initiatives and projects, including Esperanza: The Immigrant Women’s Legal Initiative of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Mónica holds a Bachelor of Arts from Loyola University Chicago, a Juris Doctor from The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law, and a Master of Public Administration from the Harvard Kennedy School.  Mónica serves as the Director of Gender Equity and Advocacy at National Hispanic Leadership Agenda (NHLA) and the Director of Gender Equality for the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement (LCLAA).

 

 

Family: National Farmworker Awareness Week Day 6

In November 2015, the EPA finalized important revisions to the Agricultural Worker Protection Standard, (WPS), which provides protections from pesticide poisoning and injury for farmworkers, pesticide handlers, and their families. Those highly overdue changes took effect January 2nd of this year. The last major revisions to the WPS occurred in 1992, lagging far behind changes in pesticide research and development, technological advancement, farmworker demographics, and workplace safety standards in other industries. Some of the changes include annual pesticide safety trainings for workers and (for the first time) a minimum age requirement (18) for all pesticide handlers.

Farmworkers come into contact with pesticides on a daily basis. The pesticide residues that remain on their work clothes and skin can expose their families and inadvertently put their health at risk.  If a worker experiences health problems caused or exacerbated by pesticide contact, application information, Safety Data Sheets, and accompanying application records are of vital importance. Under the WPS, workers have the right to access this information, and like workers in all other industries, they may designate a representative – such as a family member or lawyer – to seek the information in their stead. There are many reasons why a farmworker would need assistance in seeking this information, including language and other communication barriers, geographic distance and fear of reprisals from an employer.  Recent accounts of the new administration’s immigration enforcement actions in agricultural communities in Vermont, New York and other areas of the country have only increased workers’ reluctance to assert their workplace rights. By offering alternative channels for farmworkers – and potentially their family members – to assert their rights, the new WPS could improve and potentially save the lives of workers and their families.

Health: National Farmworker Awareness Week 2017

Day 5 of National Farmworker Awareness Week focuses on farmworker health.  Farmworker Justice has been working to protect  farmworkers' access to health care through close monitoring of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and the impacts any changes would have for farmworkers. 

Current efforts to replace the Affordable Care Act threaten to roll back important gains in health insurance coverage achieved for farmworkers and their families. By increasing costs for young, rural, low-income individuals, the failed American Health Care Act (AHCA) would have substantially reduced access to health insurance for farmworkers and their families.

The AHCA’s provisions, including eliminating the employer mandate, modifying the eligibility for tax credits, ending Medicaid expansion, and modifying the structure of Medicaid, would have left many farmworkers with higher costs and fewer options for health insurance. Lawfully present farmworkers, especially H-2A workers, would have lost their access to affordable health insurance due to the bill’s proposed changes in immigrant eligibility for tax credits. The AHCA proposed restricting eligibility for tax credits to individuals who met the “qualified alien” definition under the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA).

The ACA has provided farmworkers and their families a level of access to health insurance coverage that was previously unattainable.  While the ACA can be improved, efforts to eliminate provisions such as income-based subsidies, immigrant eligibility, Essential Health Benefits, and Medicaid expansion, will only impede access to health care to farmworker families. Farmworkers need greater, not reduced access to affordable health care.

Borders: National Farmworker Awareness Week 2017

A majority of the nation’s 2.5 million farmworkers are undocumented immigrants. Recent and proposed changes in immigration policy are having a significant impact on farmworkers’ daily lives and livelihoods, as well as on the industries in which they work.

In the past two months, there have been a series of actions by the new administration which greatly broaden the scope of those who are considered a priority for immigration enforcement. Under recently issued executive orders, any undocumented immigrants may be subject to immigration arrest, detention, and removal from the U.S.; regardless of how long they have been in the country or whether or not they have committed any crimes. Recent government measures also call for increased militarization of the border, including the construction of a border wall, as well as the hiring of more immigration officers and the use of local police for immigration enforcement, among other policies.  

Migrant farmworkers often travel throughout different states due to the seasonal nature of agricultural work, but they are now facing increased fear and uncertainty about the possibility of immigration enforcement. Farmworkers are also fearful of traveling within their local communities for day-to-day tasks like running errands, dropping their children off at school, or receiving medical treatment, potentially increasing their vulnerability and isolation.

Farmworker Justice has additionally heard various concerning reports about migrant workers and immigrant rights’ activists, including farmworkers in New York and Vermont, being targeted by immigration enforcement. This type of heightened immigration enforcement may lead to an increase in labor abuses as farmworkers become fearful of speaking out and suffering retaliation.  Employer concern about immigration enforcement is also expected to result in an even higher use of the H-2A guest worker program, with increasing pressure by agribusiness for the Administration to cut the already inadequate labor protections and oversight in the program.  

In these uncertain times, Farmworker Justice would like to remind all farmworkers of the importance of knowing and protecting their rights, regardless of their immigration status. To this end, Farmworker Justice has compiled a list of available “Know Your Rights” materials produced by partner organizations, as well as original materials in English and Spanish to help farmworkers and their communities better prepare for and respond to increased immigration enforcement.

Culture: National Farmworker Awareness Week 2017

From 2000 to 2014, Latinos accounted for over half of all population growth in the US. Although birth and immigration rates among Latinos have slowed since the Great Recession, as of 2014 Latinos made up 17% of the general US population, making Latinos the largest ethnic minority group. By 2060, Latinos are projected to make up over a quarter of all Americans.

Second-generation Latinos, as discussed in a recent piece in the Pacific Standard, tend to engage in “selective acculturation,” in which “fluent bilingualism and the reinforcement of ethnic identity” define an individual’s place in US culture as opposed to gradual erasure of that individual’s ethnic identity.

The US should focus on providing bi-cultural Americans with the best start in life that the government can offer. Migrant and Seasonal Head Start (MSHS) represents the best chance many children of migrant and seasonal farmworkers have to receive that crucial, quality start. Farmworker Justice is proud of our collaborations with the MSHS programs and particularly the work of the East Coast Migrant Head Start Project.

Research shows that high-quality early childhood education not only improves a student’s individual academic and economic prospects, but provides society-wide social and economic benefits as well; perhaps most compellingly, research indicates that these societal benefits are so great that early childhood education programs end up paying for themselves.

MSHS provides early childhood education on a schedule that supports the work patterns of migrant and seasonal farmworkers. It provides extended care hours and meals to students, along with assistance accessing healthcare and social services. Amidst drastic domestic budget cuts, we must continue to fight for those that support health and success of farmworker children, Learn more about the East Coast Migrant Head Start Project by following their facebook page here.

UN Special Rapporteur in Trafficking in Persons Concerned about H-2A Guestworker Program

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has issued a statement, released on December 19, following a visit to the United States by Maria Grazia Giammarinaro, UN Special Rapporteur in Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children.

The Special Rapporteur, in discussing trafficking, raised concerns about the vulnerability of agricultural guestworkers due to their non-immigrant status under the H-2A temporary foreign agricultural worker program and ongoing abuses under the program.

It is helpful at this moment to have objective observers investigate and comment on the H-2A temporary foreign agricultural guestworker program. Agricultural employers’ use of the H-2A visa program has grown rapidly and likely will continue to expand. Grower associations are campaigning to lower H-2A wage rates and reduce government oversight.

The UN Special Rapporteur said:
“The legal framework governing temporary visas for migrant workers, especially H-2A visa for temporary or seasonal agricultural work and H-2B visa for temporary or seasonal non-agricultural work visas, is of particular concern as it exposes applicants to the risk of exploitation, including human trafficking.”
In practice, she found that for many guestworkers reporting human rights violations or quitting their jobs to return home “is impossible because of the debts they incur from recruitment agencies’ fees.”

She called on the United States to improve the way the program operates and to do more to stop abuses.
Her comments echo our report, “No Way to Treat a Guest: Why the H-2A Agricultural Visa Program Fails U.S. and Foreign Workers,” available on our website.

The UN’s statement will be useful as we and allies defend farmworkers in the policy battle that will occur in the next Administration and Congress and seek to build a just immigration system that respects working people.

Hunger amidst plenty: Food assistance in farmworker communities

The people who spend their days picking fruits and vegetables are struggling to find food for their own families. Numerous studies across the United States have thoroughly documented the staggering rates of both hunger and food insecurity that plague farmworker communities. For example, one study of Georgia farmworkers found that 63% of migrant and seasonal workers surveyed struggled to feed themselves and their families. Additionally, farmworkers often face countless barriers when trying to get food, including low wages, poor public transportation, and a lack of culturally-appropriate food, among others. Among farmworker families, the average income is between $17,500 and $20,000, which falls well below the 2016 federal poverty level of $24,300 for a family of four. Given these numerous barriers, what resources can farmworkers utilize to feed their families?

From federally-led programs such as the National School Breakfast Program to the local food pantry in your neighborhood, there are numerous government and charitable programs that help feed hungry Americans. Though participation varies region to region, the main programs that farmworkers typically access are the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP); the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program; and the National School Breakfast and Lunch Programs, in addition to local soup kitchens, food pantries, and other alternative food programs. When effectively implemented, federal nutrition programs have been effective in reducing food insecurity among some farmworker families. However, farmworkers often face a variety of barriers to accessing these food assistance programs, and the programs alone do not adequately address the alarming levels of food insecurity in farmworker communities. .

Immigration status poses a significant barrier for many farmworkers in accessing food assistance. For instance, SNAP identifies eligible categories of immigrants and generally requires that they have been in their qualified status for five years before receiving any cash transfers. Additionally, some farmworkers avoid enrolling in any federal nutrition programs because of the belief that participating in public assistance may compromise one’s immigration or residency status. Farmworkers also commonly live in rural communities, where resources such as food pantries and soup kitchens can be inaccessible for families without adequate transportation. Farmworkers who live in labor camps, motels, various forms of substandard housing or who are homeless also often lack the proper equipment for food preparation and storage. Other barriers include poor translation services, poor quality of food donations, and misinformation on eligibility and availability of resources. Thus, existing food assistance programs are not amenable to the unique needs and harsh living conditions of farmworkers.

So what can be done to solve this problem? A permanent solution requires that farmworkers receive fair wages to fully meet their families’ financial needs and that they have the opportunity to become immigrants and citizens with the same basic rights as other workers. In the short term, more emergency food programs must address the immediate hunger in farmworker communities by offering a larger, more frequent supply of fresh, healthy, and culturally-appropriate foods directly in farmworker communities. Sadly, one study in Northern California revealed that farmworkers, and especially those that are undocumented, already depend on emergency food as their main food source. Farmworkers can enroll in food assistance programs by visiting their local human services department or social service referral organizations. Simultaneously, service providers can also educate families about and enroll farmworkers into federal assistance programs like SNAP and WIC, to address the longer-term food insecurity. On a policy level, states can take action to expand their eligibility requirements for SNAP and other public assistance programs. For example, California provides state-funded food stamps to certain non-citizens who do not qualify for SNAP, a program known as the California Food Assistance Program.

Though drastically changing the current system of food assistance would greatly benefit farmworkers, these changes must consider factors such as language proficiency, cultural competency, and immigration status to be successful. Hunger doesn’t happen simply because a family doesn’t have enough to eat, but also because of a variety of factors unrelated to food; likewise, eliminating hunger does not require simply providing food, but also ensuring living wages and access to forms of federal assistance to eliminate poverty. A fundamental change in the current food assistance programs is vital for addressing hunger among farmworker communities, but we must continue to advocate for the overall livelihood of farmworkers to ensure the people that help us live a hunger-free and food secure life are also living a life that is free of hunger and food insecurity.


 

National Farmworker Awareness Week: Transforming the Produce Industry

Today's guest blog is written by Peter O'Driscoll, Executive Director of the Equitable Food Initiative.  The Equitable Food Initiative (EFI) brings together workers, growers and retailers in the effort to produce better fruits and vegetables. As produce farms comply with the EFI Standard—for improved working conditions, pesticide management, and food safety—the entire food system sees benefits, all the way from farm workers to consumers.

There's a reason we still celebrate Farmworker Awareness Week each year. Despite landmark events over the past six decades -- from the broadcast of Edward R. Murrow's "Harvest of Shame" in 1960 through the campaigns of Cesar Chavez's United Farmworkers in the 1970s, the supply chain agreements of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee in the 1980s, the organizing of tomato workers in Immokalee and the more recent success of Oregon farmworkers on documentation and minimum wage -- most consumers just don't pay enough attention to the challenges facing those who harvest our fruits and vegetables.

Across those same decades, the produce industry itself has too often taken workers for granted. Thanks to an abundant labor supply, workers were seen as interchangeable, rather than as skilled and valuable assets. But that perception may well be changing. Enhanced immigration enforcement has significantly tightened the agricultural labor market, raising concerns among growers who can't find the workers they need to harvest their crops.

Meanwhile, as US growers increasingly source from Mexico to provide year-round supply, labor unrest and press accounts of harsh working conditions south of the border have convinced the produce industry that there are major vulnerabilities in its sprawling global supply chains. Many insiders acknowledge that "social compliance" is now as urgent a priority as food safety, an issue that always grabs consumers' attention.

As an unusual collaboration among retail, grower, labor and consumer organizations, the Equitable Food Initiative sees a tremendous opportunity for transformation in the produce industry. We believe that well-trained and fairly compensated workers can be a huge part of the solution to the industry's food safety and labor challenges. Our work with Costco Wholesale, Whole Foods and eight of their produce suppliers is already demonstrating that engaged and motivated workers can verify ongoing compliance with our rigorous standards. This spring, our first certified strawberries will be on Costco shelves with the "Responsibly Grown. Farmworker Assured." ™ label. More product will be available as the season advances, and we hope other retailers will join in supporting their suppliers to achieve EFI certification.
 

But beyond the assurance of compliance, EFI's experience with growers so far shows that new forms of labor-management collaboration can also create other forms of value. As with any industry, experienced farmworkers know a great deal about the produce they harvest, and can use the problem-solving skills they learn through EFI to explore ways to improve the production process, reduce waste and retain labor in a tight market. As more suppliers get involved, there are also opportunities for sharing best practices: rather than dictating how things should be done, EFI aims to build on the inherent knowledge that workers and their supervisors already bring to their profession. As EFI evolves, we learn and grow through the insight of our stakeholders.

Among our early-adopters is NatureSweet Tomatoes, a San Antonio-based company with multiple facilities in Mexico and Arizona. NatureSweet is "dedicated to increasing the sustainability of the land and the lives of all those surrounding our product." But by investing in the capacity of its workforce, the company also sees a significant competitive opportunity, and talks about a produce industry "ripe for disruption." All the growers we talk to seek to tap the potential of their workforce and promote a change of culture in the industry. EFI is excited to be part of what we see as a positive transformation. And it all starts with an awareness that farmworkers bring tremendous skill and knowledge to their trade. This week should be about helping to spread that awareness.

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