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Pesticides Continue to Poison Farmworkers
(Beyond Pesticides, December 10, 2003)
Isabel Cruz recently recounted her terrifying encounter with pesticides that occurred last April in an Immokalee field to the Palm Beach Post. "We were separated from that tractor by only a ditch," she remembered, "You see the chemicals in the air, and there was a breeze and it brought it at us.” Cruz’s skin began itching three days later. “My hands and neck and face -- wherever that liquid and air touched me." Then, her skin peeled off her hands and face. As the sickness continued, her fingernails turned black and she lost ten pounds, forcing the 34-year-old mother to quit her job. "I couldn't mop because I couldn't hold the mop," she said. "My husband had to do the cooking."

Fear of deportation kept her from filing a complaint. "Part of the tragedy here is that people don't know who they work for and don't know where to start to go for a remedy," said Maria Vega, a Catholic Charities caseworker. "They don't do anything because they are afraid."

Further, federal and state policies offer little relief to the farmworkers’ plight. "There are laws to protect farmworkers, but for almost every law, there is a loophole," said Tania Galloni, a lawyer for the Migrant Farmworker Justice Project. The Palm Beach Post reports, “Florida growers - who use more pesticides per acre than growers anywhere else in America - are rarely fined when they break the rules. Of 4,609 pesticide violations found by inspectors at the Florida Department of Agriculture in the last 10 years, only 7.6 percent resulted in fines. The rest received written reprimands or warnings.” The department further ignored the overwhelming difficulties farmworkers face by fighting against a methyl-bromide phase-out, arguing for the continued use by Florida growers of this toxic chemical, which is linked with cancer, muscle weakness, vision disorders, and abnormal reflexes.

Additionally, as reported in the Post, when Florida lawmakers had an opportunity this year to reenact legislation requiring growers to provide workers with precautionary information about dangerous pesticides, the department took no position.

Farmworkers are distressed throughout the nation. In North Carolina, the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC), made up of NC farmworkers that pick cucumbers for the Mt. Olive Pickle Company, are standing up for their rights. FLOC states that a harvester of the cucumbers that become Mt. Olive Pickles gets roughly 65 cents per 33 pound bucket (averaging 6 buckets an hour), and labor under sweatshop conditions. The workers usually sleep in housing packed with many more workers than humanely fit, and the workplace seldom has a toilet close or clean enough to use or soap for washing hands. When the farmworkers are injured or sick, they rarely find a first aid kit or someone to take them to the doctor.

As the farmworkers are struggling for rights in their own states, federal law provides little relief. In 1996, EPA dealt a severe blow to the Worker Protection Standards created in 1974. The policy change allowed workers who had never received pesticide training to work five days in the fields without any information about the dangers. The new standards also reduced the number of days that growers must provide water for hand-washing (one gallon for every worker) from one month to one week for certain pesticides. Not surprisingly, two years later, skin rashes reported by field workers began to climb. In 1998, the rate was about 11 cases per 10,000 workers. By 2001, the rate jumped to nearly 27 cases per 10,000 workers, among the highest for any occupation, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

For information about how you can help, see Beyond Pesticides' December 5 2003 Photo Story.