Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Posts Tagged ‘Farm Workers’

Groups Petition OSHA to Issue Heat Standard

Wednesday, July 18th, 2018

Peggy Frank, a 63-year-old California postal worker — and also a mother and grandmother — died last week while working her usual route in unusually hot weather. Frank’s heat-related death was not a freak occurrence, nor was it unusual.

“An average of more than 2.2 million workers in the agriculture or construction industries worked in extreme heat each day,” according to according to a report released yesterday by Public Citizen, in support of a petition by more than 130 organizations for an OSHA heat standard.  High heat — and especially working in high heat — can cause serious heat-related illnesses and death. It can also worsen other conditions such as heart disease and asthma.

The report cites the Bureau of Labor Statistics which concludes that “exposure to excessive environmental heat stress killed 783 U.S. workers and seriously injured 69,374 workers from 1992 through 2016,” and these numbers are probably significantly underestimated because many heat-related deaths are registered as heart attacks. Construction workers and farm workers are the occupations most at risk.

Although it seems hard to believe, almost 50 years after OSHA was created, the agency still has no occupational heat standard. High heat has been plaguing workers for a long, long time — pretty much since God said “Let there be light.” We’ve known about the hazards of heat stroke and how to prevent them for a long time as well.

And, of course, the problem has gotten much worse since the beginning of time. The groups petitioning OSHA — which include Public Citizen, Farmworker Justice, Interfaith Worker Justice, the Natural Resources Defense Council, United Farm Workers, United Food and Commercial Workers Union and several other labor unions —  tied the need for an OSHA heat standard to global warming which is significantly increasing the risk to workers. The petition noted that

Global warming is resulting in more frequent days of extreme heat, and record-breaking summers are now becoming the norm. 2017 was the second-hottest year on record, surpassed only by 2016. Indeed, 17 of the 18 hottest years on record have occurred since 2001…. Record-setting years will be common in the coming decades, as temperatures are projected to increase by 2.5°F (1.4°C) for the period 2021–2050 relative to 1976–2005 even if we aggressively reduce greenhouse gas pollution worldwide.

Groups Petition OSHA For A Heat Standard

Yesterday, more than 130 organizations announced a petition to OSHA for a heat standard that would protect workers from the hazards of high heat.  Joining the press conference were former OSHA Directors Dr. Eula Bingham and Dr. David Michaels as well as former California/OSHA Director Ellen Widess. The press conference, which included the passionate statement of a man whose brother died of heat exposure, can be heard here.

Federal OSHA, which concluded that extreme heat was a factor in the deaths of at least six workers in 2017, has been concerned about the problem for many years. The agency launched a national heat education campaign in 2012, following successful efforts to prevent heat-related deaths among workers cleaning up the Deepwater Horizon oil spill on the Gulf of Mexico.  OSHA borrowed CalOSHA’s  their “Water, Rest, Shade” campaign and developed a cell-phone heat app, that would analyze the hazards of heat for workers in their geographical area, and recommend measures to protect themselves. (Available from the Apple Store or from Google Play.)  OSHA also increased enforcement under its General Duty Clause, which the agency uses when there is no standard. But, according to former OSHA head David Michaels, the Obama administration declined to launch rulemaking for a heat standard due to lack of time and resources while working on the silica, beryllium and other OSHA standards issued during the last administration.

Three OSHA state-plan states — CaliforniaWashington, and Minnesota (indoor) — have heat standards, leaving 130 million workers in the rest of the country who lack the protections of a national OSHA heat standard. The military also has strict heat standards and in 2016, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH)  issued the third version of its criteria for a recommended heat standard “which includes the following elements: heat stress threshold, rest breaks, hydration, shade, heat acclimatization plan, PPE, exposure monitoring, hazard notification, worker training, medical monitoring, injury surveillance, and recordkeeping.”

The report and petition argue that federal OSHA’s current efforts and voluntary activities are not enough. The report points out that an OSHA analysis of heat-related fatality cases show that “17 of 23 fatalities (74 percent) involved workers who were in their first three days on the job, and eight (35 percent) victims were on the very first day of work,” because employer did not follow industry recommendations to allow workers to acclimatize, or get used to the heat for a few days before heavy work.

Congresswoman Judy Chu (D-CA), who spoke at the press conference,  promised to introduce legislation that would require OSHA to issue a heat standard.

The petition outlined a number of elements of an OSHA heat standard, which would reqiure employers to:

  1. Provide mandatory rest breaks with increased frequency in times of extreme heat and significant exertion.
  2. Provide access to shaded and otherwise cool conditions for employees to rest during breaks.
  3. Provide personal protective equipment, such as water-cooled and air-cooled garments.
  4. Make provisions for adequate hydration.
  5. Implement heat acclimatization plans to help new workers safely adjust to hot conditions.
  6. Regularly monitor both the environmental heat load and employees’ metabolic heat loads during hot conditions.
  7. Medically monitor at-risk employees.
  8. Notify employees of heat stress hazards.
  9. Institute a heat-alert plan outlining procedures to follow when heat waves are forecast.
  10. Train workers on heat stress risks and preventive measures.
  11. Maintain and report records relating to this standard.
  12. Institute whistleblower protection programs to ensure that employees who witness violations of the heat stress safety standard are free to speak up.

This blog was originally published at Confined Space on July 18, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Jordan Barab was Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor at OSHA from 2009 to 2017, and spent 16 years running the safety and health program at the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).

Wendy’s refuses to join program protecting farm workers from sexual abuse

Monday, March 19th, 2018

When Silvia Perez came to Immokalee, Florida from Guatemala in 1993, there was one profession that made sense: working in the fields.

“Tomato-picking is the biggest industry in Florida, and you find out about it right when you arrive,” she said. “It’s bigger than textiles or the restaurant business.”

Perez got a job on a farm in Immokalee, where she was one of five women on a farm saturated with men; she made friends with two other women at work and they stuck together. Before long, their male supervisor began following them around while they worked. One day, he compared the tightness of their clothing and encouraged Perez to wear tighter shirts and more fashionable clothes.

Perez dealt with it. With two kids to feed and minimal fluency in English, she felt that tomato picking was the best option for her in her new home.

Then, in 2008, her supervisor touched her breasts.

“He asked me if they are real or fake,” she recalled. “I was so angry.”

She remembered the incident as she protested on the streets of New York City for the past five days in support of worker protections.

Worker protections, for Perez, are more than a lofty ideal; they are actively enforced by the Fair Food Program (FFP), launched by the Coalition of Immolakee Workers(CIW) in 2011. The FFP creates a partnership between farm workers, Florida tomato growers, and participating retail buyers to enforce fair wages, worker safety, and other basic protections for farm workers through a three-pronged model: it includes worker-to-worker education sessions about worker rights that are held on the farm and on the clock, it adds a premium to the price of tomatoes that becomes a direct bonus for the tomato pickers, and it enlists the help of the third-party Fair Food Standards Council, which conducts regular audits and carries out ongoing complaint investigation and resolution.

Fast food restaurants like McDonald’s, Burger King, Subway, Taco Bell, KFC, and Chipotle have all signed on to the FFP, which means they only purchase their vegetables from farms with these protections. But Wendy’s refuses to participate. That’s what brought Perez to New York, to join the CIW in their fast and protest against the fast food chain’s refusal to join.

On Thursday, outside the Manhattan hedge fund offices of Nelson Peltz, Wendy’s largest shareholder and chair of its Board of Directors, Perez made her voice heard.

“I am here as a mother to break the silence and to end the abuse that exists where Wendy’s buys their tomatoes,” Perez said. “We’re demonstrating and we’re being joined by students, by thousands of people. And they’re on our side. They’re listening to us. They come, they show up. We hope that Wendy’s will listen. If not, we will keep showing up.”

Denying dignity to farm workers

When Perez first faced sexual assault at work, she didn’t have many options. There was no union to report to, and, throughout the 2000s, workers’ rights in Florida were quickly disappearing as then-Gov. Jeb Bush (R) dismantled the state’s Department of Labor.

Her experience was nothing new. Farm workers in the United States have long faced sexual abuse, rape, and harassment in the fields — a problem exacerbated by the fact that many of the workers are undocumented immigrants who are more easily taken advantage of by individuals in power.

So, Perez continued to put up with it. Until 2008, when she heard about a solution in the form of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a grassroots organization launched in 1993 that advocates for worker justice through community organizing. In 2011, CIW started the Fair Food Program.

From the fields, Perez noticed improvements as corporations started signing onto the FFP. Water, bathrooms, and shade became available to her and her colleagues. Her pay increased. There was a system to report problems, including a 24-hour hotline that she and other pickers could call from anywhere. For the first time, she felt like she had a voice at work.

“If someone on the field had a headache, they could actually ask for a break,” Perez told ThinkProgress.

To those who have never worked in the fields, these changes may seem minor. However, they’re important enough that Perez worries about farm workers who aren’t protected by the FFP. She’s heard stories from pickers who have witnessed sexual abuse and wage theft on non-FFP-protected farms. She was horrified to read a 2014 Los Angeles Times exposé of human trafficking circles run on the Bioparques de Occidente farm in Mexico.

Perez and the rest of the CIW said their dignity should be at the center of Wendy’s transactions.

Laura Espinoza, director of the Fair Food Standards Council, the third-party organization that oversees the FFP, agreed. She called the FFP an all-around beneficial situation: buyers get transparency from their supply chain, growers oversee safe, secure workplaces, turnover among workers on farms decreases, and tomato pickers like Perez are safe at their jobs.

Wendy’s isn’t alone. Although the FFP has seen growth — since 2011, it’s expanded to include seven states, three crops, and continues to get support from the fast food industry — there’s been a steady increase in U.S. buyers sourcing tomatoes from Mexico, said Jennifer Bond, an agricultural economist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

It’s problematic, as the success of the FFP hinges on buyers joining. With a surplus of farms that provide cheaper — and perhaps, as Wendy’s claims, riper — tomatoes, there is a strong financial incentive for companies like Wendy’s not to sign on to an agreement that promotes human rights.

“We at the Council are able to stop abuses because we go out to the farms and say, ‘If this doesn’t stop, you will not be able to sell your produce to our participating buyers.’ That’s what Wendy’s is denying to farm workers,” Espinoza said.

She cited a 2017 lawsuit in which a female farm worker at Favorite Farms in Tampa, Florida was sexually harassed and raped by her supervisor. When she reported the incidents, she was suspended, then fired. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) sued the farm and won the lawsuit, but Espinoza said that didn’t provide enough long-term protection for the workers on that farm.

“With the FFP, if a farm worker or grower is found guilty of sexual assault or retaliation, they are banned from all FFP-participating farms,” she said. “But that individual can work at Wendy’s. Because they’re not enforcing these basic human rights.”

“We are here to be heard”

By sunset on Thursday evening, the dozens of Immokalee workers in New York were joined by thousands of marchers. Native New Yorkers, faith leaders, workers from outside of Florida, and students on spring break from as far as Indiana proceeded in front of Peltz’s building chanting, drumming, and carrying signs urging onlookers to boycott Wendy’s, to support human rights, and to buy fair food. It was day five of the protest, and the marchers were energized as they made their way from Park Avenue to a park opposite the United Nations where the air boomed with the voices of five women on a makeshift stage who were rapping about rights and being American.

For Perez, it was gratifying to be surrounded with such a show of support. Now, she hopes that Wendy’s will finally agree to prioritize the rights of pickers like her.

“Wendy’s is supporting the problem. They buy tomatoes where respect doesn’t exist, where there are no rights for workers,” Perez said amid the noise. “Wendy’s says that tomatoes are more fresh, more delicious. But they don’t know about the life of the workers. We are here to be heard.”

This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on March 16, 2018. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Gina Ciliberto is a writer based in New York City. She covers social justice issues for the Dominican Sisters of Hope, among others.

Overtime for farmworkers passes California legislature, heads to governor's desk

Thursday, September 8th, 2016

LauraClawson

The California legislature has passed a bill that would give farmworkers the same overtime protections as other workers. Now the question is whether Gov. Jerry Brown, who has not taken a position on the proposal, will sign the expansion from the state’s current law, which requires employers to pay time-and-a-half after farmworkers put in 10 hours in a day or 60 hours in a week. Other workers get, and farmworkers stand to get, overtime pay after eight hours in a day or 40 in a week.

 
Getting this bill passed required serious legislative maneuvering by Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez:

The Assembly rejected the proposal in June, when eight Democrats opposed it and another six refused to vote. In what Gonzalez has described as an unprecedented move to revive the bill, she worked around the Legislature’s rules and reinserted the proposal in another bill, angering Republicans who objected to the breach in procedure.

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Gonzalez waged a social media campaign to pressure her Democratic colleagues to back AB1066; agreed to compromises to win votes, including giving small farms an extra three years to pay more overtime; and led a squad of Democratic allies in a 24-hour fast paying homage to the weeks long fast that legendary farmworker activist Cesar Chavez staged when the “Salad Bowl” strike of 1970 initially failed.

 

 

Federal law excludes agricultural workers from overtime protections, so California is already ahead—but these workers deserve the same protections and rights as everyone else.

This article originally appeared at DailyKOS.com on August 24, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

Laura Clawson is a Daily Kos contributing editor since December 2006. Labor editor since 2011.

Supreme Court’s E-Verify Decision Devastating for Employers, Immigrant Workers

Tuesday, May 31st, 2011

kari-lydersenImmigrants rights advocates and employers, including farmers, are lashing out at the Supreme Court’s May 26 decision upholding Arizona’s right to demand employers use the controversial e-Verify system, which is meant to confirm whether someone is in the country legally.

The decision also allowed Arizona to continue the so-called “business death penalty,” which entails denying a business license to employers found guilty more than once of violating a 2007 law against hiring undocumented workers.

The e-Verify system has been widely criticized for errors, including flagging legal and native-born residents as undocumented. That’s among the reasons Illinois sought to ban its use by private employers. A federal court shot down those efforts, but the Illinois legislature did pass a state law trying to safeguard against the misuse of the system.

All employers with federal contracts are required to use E-Verify, and Texas Republican Congressman Lamar Smith is among those pushing to make it mandatory nationally.

Immigrants rights groups are allied with employers – even those that they allege exploit undocumented immigrants – in stridently opposing mandatory e-Verify use. The Supreme Court decision was the result of a lawsuit filed by the Chamber of Commerce opposing Arizona’s law. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other employer groups also sued unsuccessfully over the mandate that E-Verify be used by federal contractors. Florida has proposed a bill similar to Arizona’s regarding E-Verify. The Hispanic Chamber of Commerce opposes it.

Agricultural employers and immigrants rights groups point out that the nation’s guest worker program and overall immigration system are so badly broken that agricultural growers will simply not be able to find the needed employees especially during harvest times if they really are barred from hiring undocumented workers.

Lynn Tramonte, deputy director of the group America’s Voice Education Fund, said in a press release:

Yesterday’s Supreme Court ruling is a dagger in the heart of Arizona agriculture.  If this type of law spreads nationwide, we will essentially deport the entire agriculture industry—including jobs held by Americans—and be forced to import more of our nation’s food supply. Passing a mandatory E-Verify law without comprehensive immigration reform will kill American jobs and farms, burden small businesses, reduce tax revenue, and drive undocumented workers further underground.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack made similar points in an op-ed:

As Secretary of Agriculture I have met farmers and ranchers all over the country who worry that our immigration system is broken. They are unable to find the necessary number of farmworkers and sometimes struggle to verify their work authorization papers – all while wondering if they’ll have enough help for their next harvest.

And while some American citizens step up and take these jobs, the truth is that even when farmers make their best efforts to recruit a domestic work force, few citizens express interest, and even fewer show up to spend long hours laboring in the hot sun.

In a twist on the misguided idea that immigrants “steal” American jobs, Vilsack described immigrant farm workers essentially protecting U.S. jobs through their crucial role on U.S. farms:

If American agriculture lost access to adequate farm labor, it could cost the industry as much as $9 billion each year. Already, some American producers are opening up operations in Mexico. So we must take action to prevent the further outsourcing of farm-related jobs.

Meanwhile, the Bay Citizen nonprofit news outlet described how lucrative wineries in Napa Valley, Calif., have found it in their own self-interest to treat undocumented workers fairly, rather than paying them as little as possible or sometimes not at all as is often the case in agriculture and other industries that hire large numbers of undocumented workers.

Emmy-winning producer Scott James reported:

Without migrant labor, most of it from Mexico, the wine producers in Napa would be hard pressed to fill a carafe, much less the valley’s nine million annual cases. Experts estimate that 8,000 to 12,000 illegal migrants reside (often seasonally) in Napa, although the number is impossible to confirm.

Ten years ago, they could be found living in the woods in makeshift camps, sleeping on fetid mattresses and drinking from dirty streams. Today they receive subsidized housing, or can reside in three tidy dormitory complexes near St. Helena and Yountville where up to 180 workers pay $12 a day for room and board.

This Blog Originally appeared in These Working Times on May 30, 2011. Reprinted with Permission.

About the Author: Kari Lydersen is an In These Times contributing editor, is a Chicago-based journalist whose works has appeared in The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Chicago Reader and The Progressive, among other publications. Her most recent book is Revolt on Goose Island. In 2011, she was awarded a Studs Terkel Community Media Award for her work. She can be reached at kari.lydersen@gmail.com.

On the Border and in the Fields, Dying from the Heat

Thursday, July 22nd, 2010

kari-lydersenOn Wednesday July 14, California legislators were debating whether the state’s five-year-old heat safety regulations are strong enough to protect the  650,000 farm workers who harvest the bulk of the nation’s fruit and vegetables in temperatures that regularly climb over 100 degrees.

As the legislators ruminated from the safety of their air-conditioned chambers, 54-year-old Rodolfo Ceballos Carrillo was loading boxes of tables grapes onto trucks at Sunview Vineyards in Kern County, Calif., in 97-degree heat. At 4:30 that afternoon, Carrillo collapsed and died. Another California farm worker also died the same day. They are among four farm workers and a construction worker who have perished in apparently heat-related deaths since June. Another worker had died at the same vineyard doing the same job as Carrillo in 2008.

Many see this as the latest proof that the heat-safety law California passed in 2005 has not saved largely immigrant farm workers and construction workers from painful deaths and health problems caused by toiling often without shade, breaks or water in extreme heat.  Each year since the law was passed, a handful of workers have died – at least 11 between 2005 and 2009 according to a lawsuit filed last year by the United Farm Workers (UFW).

The state occupational health and safety agency (Cal/OSHA) is currently investigating Carrilla’s death, the June 11 death of a plum picker in Tulare County, the June 29 death of a 33-year-old farm employee in Indio and the death of a 57-year-old farm mechanic in Firebaugh, along with the death of a construction worker in San Bernardino. The agency has said it did 1,340 investigations so far this year and has found 316 heat-related violations.

The state heat safety law, considered the first and most stringent in the nation, mandates employers provide adequate rest, water and shade when temperatures top 85 degrees. They must provide enough shade for a quarter of the workers to sit comfortably at one time; and enough cool clean water for all workers.

But critics say there are not near enough enforcers and fines are not hefty enough to make sure employers comply. There are fewer than 200 occupational health and safety enforcers in California for 17 million state workers, including the 650,000 farm workers spread out over thousands of farms.

And under the law, the onus is still on the workers to ask for breaks and water, an unlikely situation when their documentation and employment status makes them feel vulnerable to retaliation; and when they are often paid piece-meal depending on how much they harvest. Workers quoted on the UFW’s website note these situations:

I would work all day without taking a break or going for water because I was afraid of getting fired.

–Erika Contreras,farm labor contractor worker

They give us the water they use to irrigate the fields.
–Pedro Zapien,vegetable worker

We have to pitch in money to have clean drinking water.
–Juan Martinez Vasquez, pea worker

The foreman drinks the water we bring ourselves.
–Francisco Villasaña,cotton worker

When someone wants to drink water, the boss gets mad.
–Imelda Valdivia,grape worker

One foreman carries a gun on his side to scare the workers.
— Alejandro Gil,cotton worker

Being without water is dangerous. We are not camels that can be working without water.
— Jairo Salin Salosairo Luquez, grape worker

In 2008, the state found that more than a third of the employers it did investigate were violating the heat safety law. Last year, the state logged 137 heat-related violations out of 3,501 inspections.

The United Farm Workers website states:

Cal/OSHA has so few inspectors that it simply cannot protect workers in an industry this large, routinely imposes paltry fines even for serious violations and deaths, fails to collect fines it does impose, and allows enforcement actions to be tied up in appeals processes that often delay penalties for years.

Representatives of the group California Rural Legal Assistance are visiting farms in the state’s San Joaquin Central Valley this summer – more than 20 so far – to monitor compliance with the heat safety law and educate employers and workers about the law.They say employers have received them with hostility.

The union and other critics say employers should be forced to provide specific amounts of rest and water in response to certain temperature thresholds, rather than placing the burden on workers to demand their rights.

After the lawsuit was filed last summer, state occupational health spokesman Dean Fryer told media that California had seen improvements and dealt with heat more responsibly than other states.

Cal/OSHA has done an effective job of preventing heat illnesses and fatalities. In fact there has been a downward overall trend of fatalities since the regulation became effective in 2005. Even the CDC, in a 2008 report, showed California fairing better then other states. Their study revealed that North Carolina had the highest heat related deaths among crop workers with a rate of 2.36 per 100,000 workers. This was followed by Florida’s rate of .74 and California’s rate of .49.

In 2008, NPR reported on the heart-breaking death of a 17-year-old Mexican worker:

Maria Isabel Vasquez Jimenez was tying grape vines at a farm east of Stockton on May 14 (2008), when the temperature soared well above 95 degrees. The nearest water cooler was a 10-minute walk away, and workers say the strict foreman didn’t allow them a long enough break to stop and get a drink.

Vasquez collapsed from heat exhaustion. Her fiancé, Florentino Bautista, cradled her in his arms. “When she fell, she looked bad,” Bautista says. “She didn’t regain consciousness. She just fell down and didn’t react. I told her to be strong so we could see each other again.”

Bautista, 19, had saved up money to buy a gold ring for Maria Isabel, his childhood sweetheart from their indigenous village in Oaxaca, Mexico.

(Last Wednesday, Steve Franklin blogged for In These Times about the grueling and dangerous daily life of a farm worker.)

As workers face torturous conditions and even death in the fields because of this summer’s intense heat, those crossing the border to get such jobs are also succumbing in near-record numbers.

This month, officials in Pima County, Ariz. have dealt with one to four bodies per day of immigrants who perished crossing the border. As of July 16 the Pima County  medical examiner’s office counted 40 bodies this month. The July record from 2005 was 68. So far this year, the medical examiner has logged 134 bodies. That’s compared to 93 by this time last year, and 140 in 2007, the year with the highest number of total deaths.

The economic crisis and escalating costs charged by coyotes in recent years have meant fewer people trying to cross the border, according to various studies. Hence the record-level border deaths likely mean the trek is deadlier than ever thanks to sweltering temperatures and the increasing border security that has driven people into ever harsher and more remote parts of the Arizona desert.

There have in fact been so many deaths of late that a refrigerated truck was rolled out to help handle the bodies overflowing from the Medical Examiner’s office.

In his book “The Devil’s Highway,” author Luis Alberto Urrea describes in excruciating clinical detail what actually happens when one dies of heat. The book is a gut-wrenching journalistic literary account of the deaths of 14 migrants in the Arizona desert over Memorial Day weekend, 2001.

Walkers see demons, see God, see dead relatives and crystal cities. They vomit blood. The only clear thought in your mind now is: I’m thirsty, I’m thirsty…

Based on interviews with survivors, Urrea recreated the death of one specific man:

He went on all fours, and sometimes he went on his knees like a religious penitent. The world of sin and grace spun in flaming disks around his head. He fell. He rose. He lay. He crawled. He tried to rise.

It is indescribably cruel and senseless enough that record numbers of migrants each day are currently dying this way, crossing the desert just to come here to work. And the level of injustice rises even more – if that is possible – when one considers many who have survived that trek are still risking death by heat day in and day out as employers wring – literally – every last drop of profit from their work.

This article was originally published on Working In These Times Blog.

About the Author: Kari Lydersen, an In These Times contributing editor, is a Chicago-based journalist writing for publications including The Washington Post, the Chicago Reader and The Progressive. Her most recent book is Revolt on Goose Island.

Working Away Their Childhoods: Young Farmworkers Robbed of Rights

Friday, May 7th, 2010

As kids around the country look forward to the start of summer break, it’s easy to forget that their mid-year vacation is actually curious relic of an earlier time, when children took time off to help out on the farm. Still, even in the post-industrial age, today’s farm sector continues to put kids to work, perpetuating one of the country’s last bastions of child labor.

It makes sense to employers: Kids make obedient field hands, their little fingers nimble enough to cull all those tiny berries with maximum efficiency. Moreover, the vast migrant labor force—largely Latino, impoverished and disenfranchised—is ripe for exploitation. But there’s a cost of doing this business, according to a new report from Human Rights Watch (HRW): disrupted schooling, safety hazards, and the threat of sexual assault, all factor into the opportunity cost of a lost childhood. (See video below.)

Photo courtesy Human Rights Watch

Photo courtesy Human Rights Watch

The extensive investigation reveals that child labor isn’t limited to Dickensian sweatshops in the “third world.” The federal labor laws that govern child farmworkers, moreover, don’t recognize that the agricultural sector has moved away from bucolic fields and toward modern-day plantation slavery.

Current U.S. regulations allow children as young as 12 to work on farms, and small farms have no minimum age if the child has parental permission. Toiling alongside their parents under brutal conditions, children are underpaid and exposed to injury and pesticide contamination. Young girls are “exceptionally vulnerable to sexual abuse.” For many, education and play time are impossible luxuries.

How many children work in U.S. fields each year? Due to the migratory and transient nature of the work, it’s a difficult question to answer, and data isn’t fresh; the HRW report notes that farmers in 2006 reported directly hiring 211,588 children under 18, and that nearly half a million children worked on their family’s farm that year. The total number toiling is likely much higher—the government estimates that 9 percent of all farmworkers hired in 2006 were under 18.

Child farm labor clusters in California, Florida, North Carolina, Texas, Oregon, and Washington State, though HRW stresses, “Virtually no state is without child labor in agriculture, and certainly no state fails to benefit from children’s farmwork, as the produce that is harvested and packed by youngsters’ hands may travel thousands of miles to grocery store shelves.” Even when subsidized by children’s wages, annual family incomes still hovered in the poverty range, “between $15,000 and $17,499″ on average, according to 2005-2006 data.

Though the Obama administration has vowed to tighten enforcement, employers can easily flout the already weak labor rules. Some children start working at six or seven, getting a head start on the lifetime of misery to which their parents are often condemned:

Children, like many adult farmworkers, typically earn far less than minimum wage, and their pay is often further cut because employers underreport hours and force them to spend their own money on tools, gloves, and drinking water that their employers should provide by law.

The impacts on children’s development are difficult to grasp.  Some of the youth interviewed reported regularly working from dawn till dusk, returning home utterly exhausted. But even then, said one girl, “I hated to sleep because sometimes all you dreamed of was working, thinking, ‘I need to be working.’” For a large portion of these workers, constant migration from site to site could lead to further social and emotional destabilization.

In an interview with HRW, a Michigan teen recalls, “[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.”

A mother reflected, “When you hear the children talk, you feel bad because you’ve taken a whole childhood away and you don’t realize it because you’re thinking about trying to make payments.”

About one-third of U.S.-born farmworkers (i.e. citizens) have dropped out of school—about four times the overall national rate—in large part because young people simply can’t complete their education as families shift from site to site. Federal support for migrant children’s education has reached only about half of the eligible population.

Stories like these abound, HRW reports, but the Department of Labor in 2009 “found only 36 cases of child labor violations involving 109 children in agriculture, constituting only 4 percent of all child labor cases that year. This number is not only astonishingly low, but also reflects a dramatic decline in overall enforcement of child labor laws from 2001.”

A proposed bill in Congress, the Children’s Act for Responsible Employment,would tighten regulations on child farm work and increase penalties for violations.

Yet beneath the day-to-day abuses these youth experience lies the economic structure of the food system, based on a byzantine regime of farm labor programs, an ample supply of migrants desperate for work, and the American consumer’s appetite for low prices at the checkout counter.

When viewed in light of the protests surrounding Arizona’s anti-immigrant law, these children represent all the reasons why criminalizing immigrants will do nothing to solve the crisis.

Many are U.S. citizens; many of their parents actually entered the country legally. Yet workers of all immigrant statuses are relegated to an employment system akin to indentured servitude. Child labor is the product of an immigration system that reduces families to a disposable workforce. For kids unable to contemplate a better life, their rights are the first to be thrown away.

*This post originally appeared in Working In These Times on May 7, 2010. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Michelle Chen’s work has appeared in Extra!, Legal Affairs, City Limits and Alternet, along with her self-published zine, cain. She also blogs at Racewire.org

Labor Secretary Reverses Bush's Attack on Farmworker Labor Laws

Friday, May 29th, 2009

Labor Secretary Hilda Solis will suspend the midnight Bush Administration changes to weaken labor protections in the nation’s agricultural guestworker program. The changes to the H-2A guestworker program took effect January 17, 2009, and have had a dramatic impact on wages and working conditions for agricultural workers under the program. In a notice to be published in the Federal Register tomorrow, the Labor Department announces it will reinstate the former regulations in 30 days.

“This is a great relief for our nation’s farmworkers.” said Arturo S. Rodriguez, President of the United Farm Workers (UFW). “The Bush Administration’s rules lowered wages and worker protections and made it easier to bypass legal U.S. workers in favor of guestworkers. We are overjoyed that the Secretary has overturned these cruel and illegal changes.”

The Labor Department decided to issue the suspension after a lawsuit was filed by farmworker unions, including the United Farm Workers (UFW), the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, AFL-CIO (FLOC), Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste (PCUN) challenging the legality of the changes. The lawsuit is still pending but worker groups praised the DOL’s decision. FLOC President Baldemar Velasquez called the announcement, “an important victory against the Bush Administration’s efforts to exclude farm workers from voicing their concerns over the harsh policies of a bygone era.”

The groups emphasized, however, that for all H-2A applications filed during the period when the Bush-Chao regulations have been in effect, farmworker employment will continue to be governed by the terms and conditions of the Bush regulations, including the lower wage rates imposed by the Bush rules.

Farmworker Justice remains concerned about the wages and working conditions of those workers hired under the Bush-Chao changes. There also remains a pressing need to address the farm labor supply issue in a more comprehensive manner. One-sided changes to the H-2A program do not solve our nation’s agricultural labor supply issues. We need Congress to pass the AgJOBS bill.

AgJOBS, the Agricultural Job Opportunities, Benefits and Security Act, recently reintroduced in both houses of Congress would stabilize the farm labor force by allowing undocumented farmworkers who meet certain requirements to come forward and pay fines to earn a temporary legal status and gain documentation. It would also revise the H-2A program in balanced ways that have been agreed to by both industry and labor. The AgJOBS proposal has broad bipartisan support.

About the Author: Bruce Goldstein joined Farmworker Justice as a staff attorney in 1988, then served as Co-Executive Director starting in September 1995, and was named Executive Director in July 2005. At Farmworker Justice, Bruce has focused on litigation and advocacy on immigration issues and labor law, with a special emphasis on the H-2A temporary foreign agricultural worker program. Bruce has also sought to address the problem of “farm labor contractors” and other labor intermediaries used by farming operations, often in an attempt to avoid responsibility for complying with labor laws.

This originally appeared in Harvesting Justice on May 28, 2009. Reprinted with permission by the author.

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