Farmworkers in the News: Sept 17-21

More on Growers Calls for Agricultural Guestworker Programs Last week there was an increased number of articles on labor shortages and calls for new guestworker programs. A Time magazine article ridiculously claimed that farm operations nationwide can’t find workers despite “offering 401(k) plans and health insurance.” If the growers were offering these benefit packages along with decent wages, I’m sure that they would attract more workers into the market. But, they are not. Most of our nation’s field workers and crop pickers barely get by on the wages that they are paid and they do not have health insurance. Instead, the majority of our country’s field workers and crop pickers are excluded from the federal government’s expansion of health care coverage under the Affordable Care Act due to their undocumented status.

Other articles criticized the H-2A program and called for a guestworker program for the dairy industry, and praised the Utah Compact. Growers are increasingly concerned about increased immigration enforcement in the form of I-9 audits. Articles highlighted growers in South Carolina, Arizona, Alabama and Georgia complaining that state anti-immigration laws in their states have scared off farmworkers. The growers in these articles did get one thing right: their current undocumented workers are experienced and integral to bringing food to our tables. Yet, most growers continue to call for a new guestworker program instead of legislation that would provide their workers with the opportunity to become citizens and full members of society, despite their years of living here, working hard and contributing to our nation’s economy.

Poverty and Unemployment in Farmworker Communities

The Associated Press and ABC News reported that Census figures released this week show that “three metropolitan areas in California’s Central Valley, the region with the highest farm revenues in the country, rank among the poorest in the state and nation.” Fresno County has the second highest poverty rate of all US metropolitan areas with a half million or more people even though it produces more than $5.6 billion a year in agricultural products. With one in four people in the county living under the poverty line, and 16% unemployment, it’s hard to believe that growers in California’s Central Valley are suffering from a labor shortage. Growers need to pay decent wages to attract these workers and improve the standard of living for the workers that they already employ.

Hot Goods Injunctions under the Fair Labor Standards Act

Michael Dale, Executive Director of the Northwest Workers’ Justice Project and Ramon Ramirez, President of PCUN and Chair of Farmworker Justice’s Board of Directors published a letter to the editor in the Oregonian newspaper in response to grower attacks on the Department of Labor (DOL) for using the hot goods provision of the Fair Labor Standards Act in enforcing wage violations of hundreds of blueberry pickers in Oregon. That provision allows the DOL to go to court to request an injunction prohibiting the sale or shipment of goods until the victimized workers have received the pay they are owed. In this case, the growers settled the case, but still complained afterward.

Growers’ attacks on DOL are reminiscent of the grower campaign against DOL’s proposed child hazardous orders, earlier this year. By spreading false information on the rules in the media and Congress, growers pressured DOL into withdrawing the rules, which would have protected child farmworkers from dangerous conditions in the workplace. Farmworker Justice is working with others to ensure that DOL continues to ask courts for hot goods injunctions and use other effective remedies to improve compliance with labor laws.

The Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) Jobs Act of 2012

On Thursday, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-GA) brought the STEM Jobs Act of 2012 (H.R. 6429), to the House floor for a vote. Under a rule allowing bills to bypass House leadership and the Rules Committee and go straight to the floor, the bill needed a 2/3 majority to pass. With a vote of 237-180, it came close. The bill would have given graduates of US doctoral programs in the physical sciences more green cards, while taking green cards away from the diversity lottery, which allows individuals from under-represented countries to gain eligibility for visas. Moreover, after two years, the total number of available green cards would have been lowered. At any rate, the bill was unlikely to go anywhere in the Senate, where leadership appears to remain committed to comprehensive immigration reform.

The immigration system is fundamentally broken and the agricultural labor market is dependent for half the workforce on over one million hard-working, low-paid farmworkers who don’t have immigration papers. It doesn’t make much sense for Congress to pass one, narrow fix for a tiny component of the population when the entire system needs reform to address the impact on millions of people. At least the Congressional proposal would provide the immigrant PhD holders with a true immigration status, rather than restrict them to a guest worker status with no right to remain in the country or earn the right to vote. Some in Congress are waking up to the fact that we are a nation of immigrants based on democracy and economic freedom, and should not be a nation of exploited, powerless guestworkers. Congress should reform the immigration system, including by offering undocumented farmworkers the opportunity to gain a green card, too. PhD’s may contribute to our society, but so do the people who cultivate and harvest the food we eat.

Pesticide Exposure

Earlier this month Stanford University released findings that organically produced fruits and vegetables are not more nutritious than conventionally grown fruits and vegetables. While advocates of organically grown produce offered various other health reasons for buying organic, noticeably absent from this discussion was the effect of pesticide exposure on farmworkers. Although we know that farmworkers and their families experience a range of illnesses from pesticide poisoning, ranging from rashes and vomiting to cancer and infertility, much research is needed to understand the full effects of these chemicals. Like the Stanford study, most pesticide research focuses on the effects on consumers.

One recent study of pesticide safety did not bring good news for farmworkers. A recent study reported in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, indicates that some of the recommendations for reducing pesticide exposure in the Environmental Protection Agency’s Worker Protection Standard for Agricultural Pesticides are not effective. Specifically, wearing boots, washing hands with hand sanitizer and showering within an hour of getting home, did not reduce pesticide exposure to families, though other preventative measures such as washing hands with soap and water do prove effective. Farmworker Justice continues to press the EPA to strengthen the Worker Protection Standard to prevent exposure and reduce the harm when exposure occurs.