Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Posts Tagged ‘farmworkers’

The Other Victims of California’s Fires: Workers Inhaling Toxic Fumes

Wednesday, November 14th, 2018

With the death toll now standing at 42 and with some 7,200 structures destroyed, officials are now calling the wildfire in Paradise, CA (dubbed the “Camp Fire”) the deadliest and most destructive in California’s recent history. Two other massive fires—dubbed the Hill Fire and Woolsey Fire are simultaneously scorching Southern California.

As frontline firefighters—including many prison laborers—continue to battle the blaze while healthcare providers work around the clock treating fire victims, millions of other workers far away from the inferno are feeling a secondary impact: toxic smoke.

In the San Francisco Bay Area, over 160 miles away from the Camp Fire, air quality dramatically declined almost immediately after the fires broke out. Over the past week, AirNow, a government website reporting real-time air quality data has shown the Bay Area hovering between 150-200 on the federal Air Quality Index (AQI), surpassing 200 (or “very unhealthy” levels) in parts of the Bay. The higher the AQI value, the more polluted the skies are and the more concern there is for public health.

This week, the Bay Area also saw the second highest amount of fine particulate matter in the air ever recorded. This substance is not only made up of smoke from charred forests, but could contain everything that gets incinerated when residences go up in flames: cars, fuel, batteries, light bulbs, cleaning products, plastics, upholstery and more.

Public health officials have been advising residents of affected areas to stay indoors to avoid the unhealthy air that can lead to headaches, dizziness, shortness of breath, coughing, wheezing, eye irritation and worse.

However, for many workers who work outdoors for a living, that’s easier said than done.

While many white collar workers don protective masks to commute to office jobs where recirculated air conditioning provides some measure of protection from the smoky skies, hundreds of thousands of farmworkers, day laborers, landscapers, construction workers, public works employees and others have no choice but to work through the harmful haze—at great detriment to their health.

Many of these workers hail from neighborhoods and worksites already facing increased levels of toxins. Compounding the situation, these are also often the very same workers who are least protected by worker health and safety regulations.

“It’s been horrible,” says Kywanna Reed, who has been working 10-hour days outside this week as a traffic controller. “I wake up with headaches. I go to sleep with headaches. I have a headache right now, and a bag of headache medicine in the truck. My whole respiratory system is messed up. My coworker had a nosebleed and went home sick.”

Reed said her employer, American Construction & Supply Inc., did not provide masks to employees.

“Employers should pass out masks and you could choose to wear them or not,” says Reed, “But right now, they’re not doing anything.”

Other workers, however, say their employers are providing masks while verbally encouraging workers to protect themselves.

Cesar Fragoso, who works as a landscaper for Planting Justice, said the non-profit nursery in East Oakland passed out masks to employees.

“I work outside every day, weeding and transplanting plants. I can feel the smoke in my nose. My eyes started itching. I’ve been coughing. The masks help, but it’s tragic that we have to go through this in order for people to acknowledge what we are doing to the environment,” says Fragoso.

A 2017 news release from the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) advises that “Employers with operations exposed to wildfire smoke must consider taking appropriate measures as part of their Injury and Illness Prevention Program under Title 8 section 3203 of the California Code of Regulations and as required under section 5141 (Control of Harmful Exposure to Employees).”

Those measures include “using a filtered ventilation system in indoor work areas,” “limiting the time that employees work outdoors” and “providing workers with respiratory protective equipment.”

However, as worker advocates note, holding employers accountable for taking such measures can be a challenge.

“Even though people we know from Cal/OSHA have made a tremendous effort, their presence in the field is so limited that it is really hard for them to do any kind of enforcement or implementation,” says Dinorah Barton-Antonio of the Labor and Occupational Health Program at UC Berkeley.

Other workers say they wouldn’t use a mask even it was provided, citing the already highly dangerous nature of their industries. Sixty-three-year-old carpenter Ruel Bernard smelled the smoke and started sneezing this week as he hung siding at a residential construction site, but chose not to wear a mask.

“Us older generation of construction workers, our bodies have been toxic waste dumps from the get-go. I started working in New York in 1971, breaking down plastic walls, climbing around in attics filled with insulation and dust. Every day I hurt myself at work, so at some point you’re just like ‘Fuck it,’” explains Bernard. “I know that’s a dinosaur, macho attitude. But that attitude helps us survive in this industry.”

The idea that the smoke from the wildfires is just one ingredient in an already toxic soup of working conditions resonates in farmworker communities.

Lucas Zucker is the Policy Director at Central Coast United for a Sustainable Economy (CAUSE), which works with immigrant farmworkers in Ventura and Santa Barbara Counties. During last summer’s wildfires, CAUSE distributed N95 masks to workers in the field.

“Farm work is already dangerous on the day-to-day. This area has some of the highest use of toxic pesticides,” notes Zucker. “But then with the wildfires, the ag industry pushes to harvest their crop quickly to prevent damage to crops like strawberries and avocados. So we actually see an increase in production, with obvious implications for human health. Whereas a white collar worker might be able to take time off and have that paid, for farmworkers who get paid piece rate it’s hard for them to take that time off if they’re already living paycheck to paycheck.”

While much of the conversation in the Bay Area about protection from the smoke has focused on masks, some workers point to having power on the job—whether that be in the form of a union contract or worker ownership—as one of the largest factors in ensuring worker health and safety.

“We have a union here. It helps us get through things like this because I feel like we have some camaraderie and I can take steps to take care of myself without worrying that I’ll lose my job,” says Daniel DeBolt, who works as a deckhand on the ferry boats that shuttle tourists and commuters from Oakland to San Francisco and who has been experiencing headaches and fatigue all week.

Worker power on the job was also key for Dante Ortiz from Root Volume, a worker-owned landscaping cooperative.

“In 20 years of building gardens in wildfire-prone areas like Colorado and California, I’d never had a day where we had to pull out because of air quality, but that happened last Friday. We were doing heavy excavation, trenching for retaining walls. It’s hard work. You’re breathing heavily, which is the worst thing you could be doing,” says Ortiz. “So we all decided it was time to get out of there. Being in a worker cooperative gave us the agency to make that decision for ourselves.”

However, other workers like day laborers don’t have stable employment or consistent employers.

According to Gabriela Galicia, the Executive Director of the Street Level Health Project in Oakland, CA, “Workers stand on the corner for up to eight hours a day waiting for work. Many corners are already near toxic fumes, and now workers are out in the smoke too.”

Galicia notes that many workers are already thinking about heading north in search of work rebuilding fire-devastated communities, which carries its own risks to workers’ rights and their health. Worker exploitation and wage theft has marred reconstruction in post-disaster recovery efforts across the country.

“We’ve seen too many natural disasters where day laborers have been taken advantage of,” says Galicia. “They are human beings. They’re helping to rebuild. Treat them with dignity.”

As human-driven climate change intensifies and more of California becomes engulfed in flames, workers wonder whether toiling in toxic air is becoming “the new normal”—or if there can be a just transition to a new way of relating to land and labor.

CAUSE’s Lucas Zucker explains, “Ultimately, we need state or federal disaster aid that can fill in the gaps for workers exposed to disaster or toxic conditions so that they don’t have to make that horrible choice between putting food on their family’s table or being exposed to toxic conditions.”

This article was originally published at In These Times on November 13, 2018. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Brooke Anderson is an Oakland, California-based organizer and photojournalist. She has spent 20 years building movements for social, economic, racial and ecological justice. She is a proud union member of the Pacific Media Workers Guild, CWA 39521, AFL-CIO.

Facing rising temperatures and pollution, farmworkers are being left behind by Florida lawmakers

Monday, August 27th, 2018

APOPKA, FLORIDA — An election is happening on Tuesday, but Florida’s farmworkers seem largely underwhelmed.

“I don’t think they care, to tell the truth, I really don’t think they care,” says Linda Lee as she sits in front of her small house near the sprawling Lake Apopka, just northwest of Orlando.

A former farmworker and vocal activist, the 66-year-old grandmother is hardly an apathetic presence. What happens in the state’s capital, Tallahassee — and in the nation’s further north in Washington D.C. — impacts Lee’s family and life. But years of silence from lawmakers have taught farmworkers in this area that if they want things to change, they’ll have to be the ones to drive the conversation.

For decades, farmworkers in the Sunshine State have waged war — against pollution and pesticides, against hardline immigration laws, against low wages. Now, amid warming temperatures and shifting weather patterns, they are increasingly turning their attention to climate change. And they plan to address the issue with or without the willing cooperation of lawmakers.

Orlando, the metropolis neighboring Apopka, is home to the sprawling tourist attraction Disney World. Where Orlando offers glitter and glam for millions of visitors every year, the area surrounding Lake Apopka is a study in contrasts. The area is traditionally home to farming country, with an emphasis on the citrus so often associated with Florida.

That claim to fame has a tragic coda. Pesticides associated with agriculture have contributed to making Lake Apopka one of the state’s leading cautionary tales. Pollution in the lake is overwhelming. Once a fisherman’s paradise, the area is now infamous for the deformities alligators and other animals have developed thanks to exposure to insecticides like dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, or DDT.

What has happened to Lake Apopka’s wildlife is well-known, but the trauma haunting the area’s residents has largely been glossed over.

Exposure to pesticides has plagued Apopka’s farmworkers for generations, something people like Linda Lee know well. Lee lost both a daughter and a granddaughter to the inflammatory disease lupus, something she believes is likely the result of their proximity to pesticides in the area.

Their deaths have haunted her, but she remains committed to fighting for her community and for herself. These days, that means broadening the conversations farmworkers have about issues like pesticides, or the hardline anti-immigration policies that directly impact undocumented workers.

“We can’t stop God, for one thing,” Lee says, referring to climate change. “But I think that people, especially the people sitting up in Washington, they need to do more.”

Farmworkers have long been among the most vulnerable people in the United States, largely cut out of labor protections and provided few rights under the law. Most are Black and Latinx, many are immigrants, and virtually all are low-income. Their vulnerable status has often seen them left out of conversations surrounding issues like climate change.

That’s something people like Jeannie Economos want to change. Economos works with the Farmworker Association of Florida, or FWAF, an organization that has fought to protect the state’s farmworkers and advocate for them.

Much of her work with FWAF has been focused on “health and safety” concerns relating to pesticides, Economos says, but that’s changing.

“For the past few years,” she continues, “with the changing climate and hotter temperatures, we’ve been more concerned about [the] impact of heat stress.”

In July, FWAF joined a coalition of 130 organizations calling on the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to require employers to protect workers from the heat. Mandatory rest breaks, access to shade, and frequent hydration are among the demands included in a petition sent to the agency.

According to the petition’s analysis, heat has killed more than 780 workers across the country between 1992 and 2016, and seriously injured nearly 70,000. With climate change, heat stress is likely to get worse and put more people at risk.

Economos says joining the OSHA petition was a “no-brainer” for FWAF, but she emphasized that for local activists, the effort is only one part of a larger fight.

“We’re really concerned about the effects of both climate change and heat, in many ways, in Florida,” she says. “We’re concerned about the acute and immediate impacts of heat, the long-term impact of heat-exposure and chronic dehydration, [that it could] shorten a person’s work years and possible their life.”

But the sun isn’t the only problem. Climate change is also warming waters off of Florida’s coast, something that scientists say is exacerbating the intensity of hurricanes. And when those hurricanes hit, they destroy property along with agriculture, a dual blow for farmworkers.

“Hurricane Irma did a lot of damage to the crops in Florida,” Economos says, pointing to the major storm that hit the state last fall. “A lot [of areas] had damage, a lot of rental homes were impacted. And farmworkers, living in trailers, even if [the trailers] were damaged, they had to pay rent. The crop was also damaged. They had no work and they had to pay rent.”

Talking about climate change doesn’t mean advocates are abandoning their focus on other issues. But global warming is becoming a major focus of groups like FWAF. And they’re not alone — in the midst of a heated election year, climate issues have taken center-stage in Florida, with sea-level rise and a toxic algae bloom crisis emerging as major themes, along with long-standing points of contention like offshore drilling.

Whatever way the wind blows on Tuesday during Florida’s primary elections, Apopka area residents like Lee say they are ready to hold lawmakers accountable to the farmworkers they have long ignored.

“When they get in office, they close and lock their doors. You call them on the telephone, [their assistants say] they’re in Washington, they’re in Tallahassee, they’re never where you need them to be until it’s time to vote,” says Lee.

She smirks. “And it’s coming time to vote.”

This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on August 27, 2018. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: E.A. Crunden is a reporter at ThinkProgress focused on environmental and world issues, as well as immigration and social justice in the U.S. South and Appalachia. Texpat. She/her, they/them, or no pronouns. Get in touch: ecrunden@thinkprogress.org.

Why Defending Workers’ Rights Means Fighting ICE’s Deportation Machine

Friday, August 25th, 2017

Last month, California Labor Commissioner Julie Su distributed a memo instructing her staff to turn away any Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents who show up at labor offices without a federal warrant. This action came in response to three recent cases in which ICE sought workers’ information shortly after they filed claims against their employers. Su told The Los Angeles Times that, in two of these cases, ICE officials showed up at the employees’ labor hearing. In case ICE continues to show up at such hearings, Su provided suggested scripts to guide the interaction. “Would you please leave our office? The Labor Commissioner does not consent to your entry or search of any part of our office,” reads one portion of the text.

ICE’s targeting of labor hearings falls into a much broader pattern of workplace immigration raids. The second term of the George W. Bush administration saw a boom in such policies, with authorities carrying out hundreds of sweeps targeting workers. In May of 2008, hundreds of Homeland Security agents swooped into Postville, Iowa and arrested 389 employees at a kosher meatpacking plant. Nearly 300 of those workers spent five months in jail before being deported. In a town with a population of just 2,300 people, this meant that more than 10 percent of all residents were incarcerated as the result of one raid. “They don’t go after employers. They don’t put CEOs in jail,” said Postville Community Schools superintendent David Strudthoff at the time. “[This] is like a natural disaster—only this one is man-made. In the end, it is the greater population that will suffer and the workforce that will be held accountable.”

While Barack Obama deported more people than any other president, the tactic of targeting workers fluctuated on his watch. Data from ICE indicates that workplace immigration arrests peaked for Obama in 2011—but never reached the levels seen under Bush. The National Employment Law Project’s (NELP) Haeyoung Yoon told In These Times that, while we haven’t seen widespread examples of workplace raids under the Trump administration, this doesn’t mean they’re not coming eventually. “These efforts take a lot of time to plan,” said Yoon.

Underscoring Yoon’s point, 55 undocumented workers were detained in February in a series of Mississippi restaurant raids. After the arrests, ICE public affairs officer Thomas Byrd said that the federal search warrants were part of a year-long investigation.

State organizations like the Illinois Business Immigration Coalition are training employers to prepare for the possibility of such sweeps. NELP and the National Immigration Law Center have created a helpful guide for businesses concerned about ICE raids, which includes details on how to keep agents out, what to do if they enter and what actions can be taken after they leave. “Employers and their employees have rights when it comes to immigration enforcement in the workplace,” wrote NELP staff attorney Laura Huizar shortly after the guide was published. “Employers can and should take steps now to protect those rights and do what’s best for their business and their teams.”

In California, where almost half of the state’s farmworkers are undocumented, there have been recent legislative efforts to combat workplace raids. The SEIU-sponsored Immigrant Worker Protection Act (AB 450) is a bill, introduced this March, that would require all employers to demand a federal warrant if ICE shows up. The legislation, which was introduced by San Francisco Assemblymember David Chiu, would also prevent businesses from handing over personal employee information unless they were subpoenaed.

But what is to be done about employers who willingly collude with ICE? While explaining her memo, Julie Su told the Los Angeles Times that she suspected businesses of tipping agents off to labor hearings, events where only the employer and employee would be aware of the scheduled time. Earlier this year, Jose Flores, a 37-year-old Massachusetts man, was arrested by ICE shortly after a workers’ compensation meeting. Flores’ lawyers believe that the arrest might have been retaliation from Flores’ employer, Tara Construction, looking for a way to get out of paying out the claim. Stephen Murray, a lawyer for Tara Construction, insists that his client made no contact with ICE and had no reason to believe Flores’ was undocumented.

A recent investigation by ProPublica and NPR reveals that this is hardly an isolated case. Their review focuses on Florida, where a 2003 law made it illegal to for workers to file compensation claims using false identification. In the 14 years since, at least 130 injured workers were arrested under the law. At least one in four of those workers was detained by ICE or deported. “State fraud investigators have arrested injured workers at doctor’s appointments and at depositions in their workers’ comp cases,” reads the report. “Some were taken into custody with their arms still in slings.”

The report also points out that the Florida model could be a preview of widespread things to come under the Trump administration. If this is true, then the labor movement could end up taking a closer look at Tom Cat Bakery in Queens, where a Homeland Security inquiry and promise of subsequent firings sparked radical protests. Employers who openly collude with Trump’s deportation machine might soon be targets of the same resistance.

 This article was originally published at In These Times on August 21, 2017. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Michael Arria covers labor and social movements. Follow him on Twitter: @michaelarria

Pesticide Threat Looms Large Over Farmworker Families

Monday, October 22nd, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

PAN cites research showing that pesticide injuries are prevalent among agricultural workers. Various studies cited in the report also suggest an epidemic of chemical “drift” from fields into nearby homes and neighborhoods. According to a 2009 report by the advocacy groups Earth Justice and Farmworker Justice (FWJ), “a growing number of epidemiological studies link pesticide drift to specific adverse health effects in humans, including autism spectrum disorders, Parkinson’s disease, and childhood acute lymphoblastic leukemia.”

While the problem is politically invisible, the effects are all too apparent. The PAN report describes the experience of Ana Duncan Pardo, a community health activist in North Carolina, who had a jarring encounter with farmworker families:

Within five minutes I had noted multiple cleft palates and several children with apparent Down Syndrome…. It was shocking and disturbing to walk into a room with a group of parents and children that easily represented three to four times the national average for birth defects.

The effect is likely compounded by the widespread use of child labor in agriculture–children barely in their teens can legally work on farms. That puts kids in daily contact with toxins that could irreparably harm their brains and bodies.

A FWJ briefing paper points to a history of vast dissonance between the federal regulation of harmful pesticides for heavily exposed workers, and parallel standards for the general public. The Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act establishes public health-based safety protections, for example, but environmental advocates point out that farmworker families’ health vulnerabilities are neglected and essentially ignored in regulatory assessments of the social costs of industrial pesticide use.

Children of farmworker families are left with far weaker protections despite their special vulnerability. Despite some restrictions on child workers handling pesticides, according to FWJ, “Children under 16 can still handle Category III or IV pesticides even though the chronic hazards associated with these chemicals include ‘potential neurotoxicity, reproductive toxicity, endocrine disruption, and carcinogenic effects.’”

Even if they don’t work in the fields, the children of farmworkers are not necessarily safe in their own homes. Virginia Ruiz, FWJ’s director of Occupational & Environmental Health, explains that farmworkers working with pesticides carry “take-home residues” on their clothes and skin. While safety warnings recommend avoiding physical contact with contaminated workers, Ruiz says, “It’s sort of unrealistic expectation of people to refrain from hugging their children and other family members as soon as they get home.”

The PAN analysis urges consumers and parents to take action for stronger safety protections. These could include mandates to phase harmful pesticides out of the market, and promoting pesticide-free school lunches and playgrounds.

Nonetheless, the battle against the pesticide threats on farms can’t be limited to the consumer end of the food chain. Farmworkers need to be engaged as stakeholders in pursuing just solutions to the unique risks posed to their communities. Farmworkers have played a leading role pushing for tighter EPA regulations as well as grassroots efforts to mobilize communities against pesticide drift. For example, a community-driven campaign in California’s Central Valley led to the creation of buffer zones to keep pesticide contamination away from sensitive locations like schools, farmworker camps and residential areas.

Kristin Schafer, coauthor of PAN’s report, tells Working In These Times, “Farmworker families were essential to the success of these efforts–some working behind the scenes, others speaking out to demand protections for their families.” She adds that environmental monitoring projects in other farmworker communities have provided opportunities for laborers “to document pesticide drift from neighboring fields, and use [this] as scientific evidence to advance these protections.” Community activists are now pressing California’s regulatory authorities to transition farms away from pesticides and toward greener alternatives.

Still, in every policy debate, farmworker families will face tremendous barriers of race, language ability, political disenfranchisement and poverty. Those aren’t chemical threats, but they constitute the climate of oppression that blankets the nation’s farms, and that corrosive cloud is now drifting into all our communities.

This post originally appeared in Working In These Times on October 20, 2012.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Michelle Chen’s work has appeared in AirAmerica, Extra!, Colorlines and Alternet, along with her self-published zine, cain. She is a regular contributor to In These Times’ workers’ rights blog, Working In These Times, and is a member of the In These Times Board of Editors. She also blogs at Colorlines.com. She can be reached at michellechen@inthesetimes.com.

Terror in the Fields: Migrant Women Face Sexual Violence on the Job

Tuesday, May 29th, 2012

Michelle Chen

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

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

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

Women make up a sizable minority in a male-dominated agricultural workforce. The economic oppression that afflicts the farmworker population generally is exacerbated by a climate of gender oppression, in which women are viewed as sexual objects, and victims of abuse may face devastating social stigma even from their own community.  Single women, indigenous, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender workers are especially at risk, according to HRW researchers.

The testimonial of Angela G. describes how her abuse was enforced by layers of silence and impunity ingrained in the workplace culture:

In her experience, women in general were not valued by the supervisors and the foremen, but Angela reported that because she did not have a partner, she was singled out for abuse. “I was called a dyke; they said I was a lesbian…. [The supervisor] and the foreman would laugh.” She was afraid to say anything because others who had complained of sexual harassment had been fired immediately. But to listen in silence day after day caused her a great deal of pain…

Angela stayed on, however, because she wanted to get promoted, earn a higher salary, and be better able to support her family. And then one day, a supervisor asked her to come over to his house to pick up some boxes. Angela reported that after she entered the house, he raped her.

Angela said she felt powerless: “For me, it felt like an eternity. I wanted to scream but I couldn’t. Afterward, he said I should remember that it’s because of him that I have this job, and if I say anything, I’ll lose my job…. I was afraid to call the police, to do anything. I didn’t know what to do. My mind was completely blocked off.”

No one knows how often this scene is repeated every day on the vast industrial farms that have drawn hundreds of thousands of migrants. But since the migrant farm workforce is the product of federal labor, food and immigration policies, the government is at least complicit in, if not at the crux of, this system of exploitation.

Although the law should theoretically protect all women from such abuse, immigrant workers are deterred from reporting work-related sexual violence because the law tends to criminalize them rather than treat them as survivors deserving of justice. As federal and state authorities have focused on arresting and deporting the undocumented, immigrant communities have every reason to see police as a source of terror, not protection.

Although special immigration relief known as the U-Visa is available to victims of crime, advocates are concerned that the qualifications for the visa are too stringent for people who are dealing with trauma and economic hardship. Access to counseling and other services is also severely constrained by language and culture barriers that make it hard for social agencies to build trust with underserved communities.

At the same time, sexual victimization is part of a continuum of exploitation, and as long as farmworkers, whether they’re here legally or not, are excluded from equal labor and civil rights, suffering in all forms will remain an intrinsic part of the agricultural system. Grace Meng, a researcher in Human Rights Watch’s U.S. Program who authored the report, said that while farmworkers face unique threats on the job, “a lot of the factors that make them vulnerable are true of unauthorized immigrant workers in a lot of industries.” Although special remedies like the U-Visa might help address individual violations, she said, “We think that the most practical and effective way to deal with the vulnerability of these workers and this population to crime and other abuses is to enact comprehensive immigration reform.”

It should be no surprise that on America’s farms, so many women are treated as less than human, since not even the government sees them as worthy of respect under the law.

An earlier version of this article was published on Alternet.

This blog originally appeared in In These Times on May 28, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the author: Michelle Chen’s work has appeared in AirAmerica, Extra!, Colorlines and Alternet, along with her self-published zine, cain. She is a regular contributor to In These Times’ workers’ rights blog, Working In These Times, and is a member of the In These Times Board of Editors. She also blogs at Colorlines.com. She can be reached at michellechen @ inthesetimes.com.

An Agreement That Isn't Good for Anyone: The Panama Trade Promotion Agreement

Wednesday, May 20th, 2009

People and planet should come before profits, but the proposed Panama trade plan would mean greed rules. The Senate Finance committee is meeting tomorrow to discuss the proposed Panama Trade Promotion Agreement. Top trade negotiator Ron Kirk is trying to ram through this agreement by July 1, when the Panamanian head of state Martin Torrijos leaves office. But this is just another free trade agreement that is bad for the people of Panama, it’s bad for the planet, and it’s no good for people of the US. We should call upon Congress to stop it now.

There’s a rancher that I know who raises cattle in the San Blas mountains of Panama, who I’ll only call Uncle Rickie. I met Uncle Rickie when I traveled to Panama in November of 2008, and I remember him for being a jolly fellow with a big belly who proudly bounced his new granddaughter Antonia, his first grandchild, on his knee.

If the Panama agreement went forward, Uncle Rickie would have to contend with a host of difficulties. The first would be that US cattle ranchers, who enjoy hundreds of millions in subsidies from the US government (US livestock farmers got handouts of about $344 million in 2003, for example,) would suddenly be able to sell duty-free to Panamanians. At the same time, Uncle Rickie will have to compete with a dramatic influx of cheap pork products from the US. Pro-pork lobbyists think that increased sales to Panama will result in $20.6 million in increased revenue. Uncle Rickie will have a lot of trouble making a profit by selling his beef to the Panamanian market, and eventually he may have to sell his land.

Farmers should be allowed to sell to their local markets. Local, living economies are good for everyone. If officials pass the harmful agreement, farmers like Uncle Rickie will no longer be able to carry on farming. Who would be there to buy the land of farmers who are forced to sell? Companies from the US and other rich nations, and maybe some wealthy Panamanians who support this agreement. This leads to a consolidation of power and decision-making as fewer people own more and more of planet earth. But people have a right to self-determination and autonomy, and the Panamanian government should respect that right.

Another supporter of the Panama agreement is Caterpillar, maker of heavy machinery used for logging and constructions. They are frothing at the mouth thinking of all the Panamanian trees that they can cut down and the increased heavy machinery sales that will result.

By the time little Antonia is going on her first date, the forests of Panama will probably be decimated, the clean rivers and pristine stands of old growth trees a distant memory. Verdant ecosystems will be forever ruined for incredible species like the blue morpho butterfly, which I first saw shining iridescently as it soared through the rainforest in the Boquete region of Panama. Like all of us, Antonia has a right to intact ecosystems, which Caterpillar seeks to undermine through supporting this trade agreement.

Another group who will be thrown under the bus if this agreement passed would be the Kuna Indians, a Panamanian ethnic group who have preserved their cultural heritage. Traditional farmers and artisans, these indigenous peoples will also face steep competition and many may have to abandon the ecologically sustainable, culturally rich ways of life their ancestors have known for thousands of years.

Will Antonia benefit from a more productive national economy? Probably not. Even looking at the brute economic indicator of gross domestic product, this trade agreement does not promise positive effects.

A similar trade agreement offers foreshadowing of what could happen if the Panama agreement goes through. NAFTA, a 1994 trade agreement between Canada, the US and Mexico, has shown that increased unprotected trade with the US is not likely to promote self-government, support local, living economies, or benefit most people at all.

GDP growth has been unequal after NAFTA, with Canada growing an average of 3.6 percent per year, the US growing 3.3 percent and Mexico growing only 2.7 percent. The average Mexican did not benefit from this growth, as income inequality has risen. Wages of Mexican workers decreased by 18 percent in the first five years. The predominant occupation in Mexico prior to NAFTA was farming, but many farmers, mostly in Central Mexico, were forced to sell or abandon their land after subsidized corn from the US flooded into Mexican markets, leaving the Mexican farmer unable to compete. Corn is indigenous to Mexico, and was farmed mostly sustainably. But now what is left is forced to compete in an atmosphere of industrial agriculture.

After NAFTA, Mexico has maintained a trade deficit with the US, meaning they import more than they export. This leaves the country hemorrhaging money and exports, which isn’t good for anyone in Mexico.

Furthermore, trade agreements like this one are bad for US workers, as we lose jobs here in the US. In just the first seven years, NAFTA had caused the loss of 766,030 jobs in the US. And it will cost us tax dollars, too. By 2002, the US Department of Labor had qualified 408,000 workers extensions on their unemployment benefits because their jobs had moved to Mexico.

Trade between the US and Panama totaled $2.1 billion in 2002 according to the office of the US Trade Representative. US exports account for about $1.8 billion of that amount. This means that for every $10 worth of goods that the US sells to Panama, Panama sells only $1 worth of goods to the US. The exports Panama sells to the US account for a tiny fraction, only 1.4 percent, of its GDP of $21 billion. Yet it is willing to sell its people down the river for this pittance.

The farmers who’ll be forced to sell their land and migrate may be forced to relocate to the city of Colon, where there are jobs in the Colon Free Trade Zone, or Zono Libre. When you picture a free trade zone, picture “Pleasure Island” from the Disney cartoon Pinocchio. For rich companies, a free trade zone represents a lawless area free from tariffs, taxes, or pesky labor or environmental laws. It usually looks like a collection of warehouse-like buildings on the edge of a port city that is protected by barbed wire. Working people (such as ex-farmers) travel into these zones each morning to do the most tedious grunt labor in return for low wages. Corporations like the low wages, while the workers are usually just desperate for any work they can get. Ships pull up to the buildings, unload raw materials like T-shirt fabric or radio parts, workers assemble them, and the finished goods get shipped to rich countries where people can afford them.

In his 2008 State of the Union address, Bush asked Congress to approve the Panama trade agreement, gleefully stating that the agreement “will support good jobs for the finest workers in the world: those whose products say ‘Made in the USA.’” That sentiment is perplexing to anyone familiar to Zono Libre, where low-paid workers work in unsafe work conditions to sew together textiles bound for the US valued at $400 million per year for companies like Orotex, with offices in Farmington Hills, Michigan. Textiles and clothing account for about 24 percent of the work done in Zono Libre. This happens as US workers lose more and more textiles jobs (stat), yet purchase more and more clothing (stat).

For all the celebrated freedom that free trade measures like the Colon Free Trade Zone has received, you would think that Panamanians would be better off, however the average Panamanian is not better off. Income inequality has risen, placing Panama among some of the most unequal countries in Latin America. Panama’s index for income inequality is 60, according to a World Bank report. As the report says, “[Inequality] is more obvious in urban areas like Colon, where the close, physical juxtaposition of the modern, dynamic wealthy sector with poor city slums accentuates the perceived gap between rich and poor.”

I have never seen Colon since my Panamanian friends have insisted that if I were to travel there I would become a certain victim of a mugging or kidnapping. But the real Panamanian danger isn’t really frustrated urban poor who see wealth all around them but can’t touch it. The real danger is the Panama trade agreement.

Some are arguing that this trade agreement is needed to rescue the US economy. But Panama’s entire economy is 0.15 percent the size of the US economy. The US has one hundred times more people than Panama. That’s right, I’m saying the country is tiny. For US officials to undermine people’s basic rights in order to do business with this small country in the hopes that its tiny economy will deliver us from certain economic death is a mistake.

If passed, this agreement will harm Panamanians like Uncle Rickie. It will negatively impact little Antonia and make her economic future less certain. It will not benefit the average Panamanian but is likely to lead to a decrease in self-government and a spike in income inequality, as NAFTA did. And it will not benefit people in the US. Our Congress should vote an emphatic “no” on the Panama Trade Promotion Agreement.

About the Author: Lacy MacAuley is a global justice activist, antiwar activist, and environmentalist with a passion for amplifying the voices of those who otherwise would not be heard. With a BA in International Relations specializing in World Development Studies, she is committed to promoting local, living economies that place people, planet, and principle before profit. She ignited a creative fire while working as news editor for her college newspaper, and has kept the flame burning through intensive grassroots organizing and  Lacy has done media relations work with groups such as Project Vote and ACORN, Global Justice Action, United for Peace and Justice, Jubilee USA, Mountain Justice Summer, and Working America (community affiliate of the AFL-CIO). Lacy is currently working on the Global Justice Media Project, and doing progressive communications work with Massey Media LLC.

DOL to suspend Bush H-2A Rules

Tuesday, March 17th, 2009

The Labor Department’s announcement of its proposed temporary suspension of the Bush Administration’s changes to the H-2A agricultural guestworker program will be officially published in the Federal Register today (Tuesday, March 17th).

The Bush Administration finalized its changes to the guestworker program in midnight legislation last December. The new rules for the program, which slash wages and worker protections for our nation’s farmworkers, went into effect January 17th.

Several farmworker groups, including the United Farm Workers (UFW), the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC), Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste (PCUN) and Farmworker Justice, among others, warned that the changes would have devastating effects for agricultural workers and tried to prevent them from taking effect. Those groups praised the new administration’s decision to review the new rules. Baldemar Velásquez of FLOC called the proposal “an important victory against the Bush Administration’s closed door policies in not allowing farm workers to have a say over important issues impacting their livelihood.”

“We thank the Obama administration. Our president has clearly demonstrated that we, Americans, now have a government that listens and cares about farm workers” said UFW President Arturo S. Rodriguez. “Today’s announcement is definitely a victory and is the first step in ensuring that the women and men who pick our food are treated fairly.”

The proposed suspension would be for a period of nine months and would give the Labor Department time to review the Bush regulations. There will be a ten day public comment period.

Meanwhile workers who begin their contracts during the period the Bush Administration’s rules are in effect (from January 17th until the suspension begins) may end up working for the lower wages and benefits of the Bush rules, said Bruce Goldstein, Executive Director of Farmworker Justice.

“A suspension of the Bush rules would be a great relief for our nation’s farm workers. The rules were illegal and DOL is acting responsibly in announcing plans to review them. However, it’s unclear what this means for workers who started their contracts under the Bush rules. The Department should not leave them out.”

A Labor Day Attack on Farmworkers

Friday, September 5th, 2008

Amid all the hype of political conventions, analysis of the Republican VP pick and Labor Day celebrations for the rest of the country, the Bush Administration will launch an attack on the nation’s farmworkers.

Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao and Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff, at any moment, will announce extensive changes to the H-2A guestworker program, slashing wages and reducing worker protections for hundreds of thousands of our nation’s farmworkers. These policy changes deserve our attention.

The H-2A program is a temporary agricultural guestworker program that permits employers to apply for permission to hire foreign labor for jobs lasting ten months or less. To bring in H-2A guestworkers, employers must show that they cannot find U.S. workers who want the jobs. These will be the most far-reaching changes in the laws regulating guestworker programs since 1942. If the changes are finalized, as we expect them to be next week, and take effect, this Administration will have returned us to an era of agricultural labor exploitation that many thought ended over 65 years ago.

What a Labor Day gift to farmworkers!

The Administration will finalize plans that were published several months ago. They called for cutting wage rates and wage protections for both domestic and foreign workers, minimizing recruitment obligations inside the U.S., ending the requirement to provide workers with free housing that meets federal and state safety requirements, curtailing or eliminating transportation reimbursement payments, and removing much of the government oversight that is supposed to deter and remedy illegal employer conduct. There is much more and it’s almost all terrible.

U.S. farmworkers will be denied jobs and forced to quit due to the onerous conditions. The aim of the Administration is to create an endless supply of guestworkers who our government will allow to be exploited at low wage wages and suffer grueling productivity standards that U.S. workers cannot afford to accept. By enticing employers to use vulnerable guestworkers at less than the cost of U.S. workers, the Administration theorizes that it will wean employers from hiring undocumented workers.

This low-wage, low-road strategy is not just morally reprehensible, it is economically destructive. Most farmworkers are undocumented. The Administration’s proposal does absolutely nothing to address that reality. They are already here doing this back-breaking work. Most of them are law-abiding people seeking to support their families, embodying those All-American values such as “self-sacrifice” and “hard-work”. Employers need them. The Bush Administration cannot make them go away.

For decades government commissions have told agriculture that it must stabilize its workforce and improve productivity by increasing wages and modernizing its labor practices, rather than relying on new waves of exploitable foreign labor to overcome high employee turnover.

We call on Congress, including Senator McCain and Senator Obama, to do whatever it takes to stop the Administration from issuing its planned changes to the H-2A guestworker program. There are reasonable alternatives that have won bipartisan support. Both Sen. McCain and Sen. Obama support those alternatives.

During this Labor Day season, amid the election year hype, we must think about the people toiling to put food on our tables. If the Administration issues the final regulations, as we expect they will any day, we plan to ask you to tell Congress to prevent those regulations from every taking effect.

For more information on the H-2A regulatory changes, and news as it develops, please see the H-2A News page on the Farmworker Justice website.

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’s activities on “guestworker” issues have included litigation against private employers and the government, advocacy in administrative agencies and Congress, training of lawyers and paralegals, building nation-wide coalitions, advising grassroots organizations, and testifying before Congress. 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. Bruce received his bachelor’s degree in 1977 from the New York State School of Industrial and Labor Relations at Cornell University, and his law degree from Washington University in St. Louis (1980). He has worked at the National Labor Relations Board, at a legal services office in East St. Louis, Illinois, and in private law practice concentrating in labor law, personal injury and civil rights.

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