PANNA: Farmworkers, Immigration, and Pesticides

 

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Farmworkers, Immigration, and Pesticides
May 04, 2006

The young man's sign read “Legalization Now” as he walked down Market Street in downtown San Francisco amongst a crowd of an estimated 100,000 demonstrators demanding fair, dignified and comprehensive immigration reform in the United States. Other signs read, “You can't spell USA without US,” and “Why criminalize hard work?”

The Day Without Immigrants, organized on May 1 st by immigrant rights, labor, faith, community and other organizations, resulted in massive participation across the country in a national demonstration of solidarity—with people skipping work, school, boycotting sales and participating in general strikes, rallies and symbolic actions. U.S. residents joined workers around the world on this May Day to press for improved working conditions, wages, and human rights. In Mexico, A Day Without Gringos was organized, where activists participated in rallies and called for a boycott of U.S. companies.

The U.S. May Day protests were organized in opposition to House Rule 4437 and similar proposals that increase fines and penalties for undocumented immigrants, criminalize people who provide sanctuary for undocumented people and increase border security, among other provisions. The protestors also put forward principles for comprehensive, fair and dignified immigration reform, suggesting policies that include: pathways to citizenship, provisions that allow for the reunification of families, worker safety measures and the protection of human and civil rights.

Protestors' signs that read “ask NAFTA about jobs in my country” and “the pilgrims were undocumented” spoke anger and truth to the hypocrisy and racism of U.S. policies. And they connected the U.S. immigration crisis with international efforts to open foreign markets and reduce barriers to the trade in toxins, capital and market goods, while promoting policies that penalize and aim to criminalize the people who move across borders to earn a living as they face globalization head on—as it undermines local economies and cultures, exacerbates rural poverty, forces rural to urban migrations, protects export/import of hazardous chemicals and threatens health, dignity and life [i]. United States customs records reveal that 3.2 billion pounds of pesticide products were exported in 1997 – 2000, including high rates of pesticides deemed “extremely hazardous” by the World Health Organization, mostly to countries in the Global South [ii].

As La Via Campesina, the international peasant movement, states: “…we reaffirm our commitment to continue struggling for the rights of migrant workers in the U.S. and to put a stop to the neo-liberal economic policies that cause people to leave their own lands in order to survive.” Also, the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (U.S.) aptly pointed out the hypocrisy of criminalizing immigrant workers while President Bush continues to assert his authority to disobey more than 750 laws.

Many people have been galvanized specifically by the increasing militancy of anti-immigrant radicals and their presence in pockets across the United States. PAN staff Leticia Tirrez agrees, “When the Minutemen started appearing, I started to get more involved. I wish I could do more. They shouldn't be involved in shaping federal laws. If they want to keep busy, they should go work in the fields and stop complaining that we take over their jobs.” The Minutemen Project touts itself as a “citizens' vigilance operation monitoring immigration, business and government.” Minuteman have organized volunteer caravans and outposts along the U.S./Mexico border, taking the law into their own hands by using threats and violence against migrants crossing into the U.S.

Immigrants certainly aren't alone in recognizing that an overhaul of U.S. immigration policy is long overdue. An April 2006 press briefing (audio file) that reviewed polling data from several firms revealed that a vast majority of U.S. voters support a comprehensive approach to immigration reform across party, geographic and racial differences [iii]. Major corporations and industries that rely upon the work of immigrants are also weighing in, aligning themselves with an agenda for change. Cargill Meat Solutions spokesman, Mark Klein, told the Associated Press that they planned to close plants in Illinois, Texas, Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado and Iowa in order to support worker involvement in May 1 events [iv]. Tyson Foods, the world's largest processor and marketer of chicken, beef, and pork, publicly supports comprehensive immigration reform [v]. The San Francisco Chronicle reported that, “Bolthouse Farms in Bakersfield, one of the world's largest suppliers of fresh cut carrots, increased production last week and over the weekend so its 1,400 employees could join the protests. ‘We support the immigration reform initiative that contemplates a guest worker program and a path to legalization,' said Tom Selim, the company's human resources director.” [vi]

Immigrants are the majority of farm laborers

Legal documented and undocumented immigrants form the backbone of the U.S. agricultural industry. There are approximately 2.5 million agricultural workers in the United States [vii]. According to the National Agricultural Worker Survey, 78% of crop laborers were born outside the country: 75% were born in Mexico, 2% were from Central American countries, and 1% of the workers were from elsewhere [viii]. Of the crop labor force, 16% is undocumented [ix]. This trend is in line with the long-standing racial and class-based segregation and exploitation in the development of industrial agriculture, where agribusiness has relied upon the strength, commitment and economic need of people of color to work in the fields and to fuel the farm economy. Industry has supported a political and economic climate that guarantees industry cheap labor, often powerless in the face of multinational corporate and governmental forces[x].

A Farmworker Agenda Against Toxic Pesticides and For Safer Alternatives

One of the insidious hazards that U.S. immigrants working in agriculture face is the use of toxic pesticides. Intertwined with the current struggle for immigration reform, farmworker organizations are also clear, insistent and proactive against the use of these dangerous chemicals in agriculture. Several farmworker organizations have developed a pesticide reform agenda, which includes the Ten Commitments to Protect Farm Workers from Pesticide Exposure. As these commitments express, eliminating toxic pesticide use, documenting pesticide exposure and mobilizing for worker protection is critical while engaging in long-term struggles for workers' rights.

Dr. Marion Moses has long documented the health effects of pesticides on farm worker families [xi]. Increasingly scientists and public health experts around the world are reporting health impacts ranging from acute or short-term poisoning (with symptoms including irritation of the eyes, skin, throat; respiratory difficulties; nausea and vomiting) to long-term or chronic effects, including cancer, reproductive, developmental or neurological impacts and birth defects. PAN's Dr. Margaret Reeves related that even though scientific evidence is mounting regarding the acute poisonings and long-term health effects that farmworkers face because of exposure to pesticides, the real poisonings and health consequences of pesticides are extremely underestimated due to lack of reporting systems, lack of enforcement, lack of health insurance, and other barriers to gathering comprehensive data on this issue [xii]. While both acute and chronic pesticide poisonings seriously threaten farmworker health and livelihoods, acute cases are easier to identify and document, providing arguments to curb the use of hazardous pesticides. That's why documenting the global extent of acute pesticide poisoning is a key step in creating the political will to ban the worst pesticides at the international level.

In North America, PAN is working collaboratively with farmworker advocacy groups to train trainers about pesticides; to provide tools to physicians and health care workers for diagnosing pesticide poisoning; to emphasize the importance of reporting exposures; and on improving California's worker safety laws and the federal EPA's Worker Protection Standard — the national legislation that addresses worker safety requirements for agricultural workers and pesticides. The EPA is taking comments this summer on revisions to the worker protection standard. Contact us if you would like more information about this work.

The May 1 st chants of “si, se puede,” and “the people, united, will never be defeated,” the songs, and the many shared smiles spoke to an increasing shared sense that fairness must be part of our globalized world. It is an honor for PAN North America to stand with farm workers and other immigrants as part of the current struggle for comprehensive immigration reform and in on-going struggles to eliminate the use of toxic pesticides that threaten the health and well-being of us all.


Sources

[i] The United States has pushed trade liberalization via political pressure, military intervention and economic investment. Analyses and statements from farmer and peasant groups in the U.S., Canada and Mexico can be found at http://www.viacampesina.org and in: Krebs, V.S. (ed.). January 16, 2003. US & Canadian Family Farmers Denounce NAFTA's Impact on Mexico. Agribusiness Examiner, Issue #216. Accessed at http://www.electricarrow.com/CARP/agbiz/216.htm. (May 2, 2006)

[ii] Smith, C. 2001. Pesticide Exports from U.S. Ports, 1997 – 2000. International Journal of Environmental and Occupational Health, 7: 266 – 274.

[iii] Goeas, E. and Mermin, D. April 20, 2006. Polling Wisdom on the Issue of Immigration. Accessed at http://www.immigrationforum.org (May 2, 2006)

[iv] Reuters. April 25, 2006. Some Cargill meat plants to close Monday for rally. Accessed at http://go.reuters.com/newsArticle.jhtml?type=domesticNews&storyID=11957140 (May 2, 2006)

[v] PR Newswire. April 7, 2006. Tyson Foods Supports Comprehensive Immigration Reform. Accessed at http://money.cnn.com/services/tickerheadlines/prn/200604071544PR_NEWS_USPR_____DAF026.htm (May 2, 2006)

[vi] DeBare, I. 2006. Most employers support rallies- Immigrant-rights boycotts concentrated in industries with mainly Latino workforces. San Francisco Chronicle, May 2, 2006. Acessed at http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2006/05/02/IMMIGWORK.TMP (May 2, 2006)

[vii] The number of agricultural workers in the United States is not systematically documented and is consistently debated. 2.5 million is a common estimate used by farmworker organizations and researchers.

[viii] U.S. Department of Labor. March 2005. National Agricultural Workers Survey (NAWS) 2001 - 2002: A Demographic and Employment Profile of United States Farm Workers. Office of the Assistant Secretary for Policy, Office of Programmatic Policy, Research Report No. 9.

[ix] Passel, J. S. 2005. Unauthorized Migrants: Numbers and Characteristics, Background Briefing Prepared for Task Force on Immigration and America 's Future. Pew Hispanic Center, Washington D.C.

[x] For a more complete description of racism and the development of agriculture in the United States see: Moses, M. 1993. Farmworkers and Pesticides, in Bullard, R.D. (ed.) Confronting Environmental Racism: Voices from the Grassroots. South End Press; Boston, Massachusetts.

[xi] Dr. Moses worked for many years in collaboration with the United FarmWorkers, investigating pesticide-related health problems in farmworkers and their families. She founded the Pesticide Education Center in 1988 and published the book: Moses, M.1995. Designer Poisons: How to Protect Your Health and Home from Toxic Pesticides. Pesticide Education Center, San Francisco, California.

[xii] For more information on the health effects of pesticides for farmworker families, see: Reeves, M. and Schafer, K. 2003. Greater Risks, Fewer Rights: U.S. Farmworkers and Pesticides.International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health; 9: 30 – 39.

 

PANUPS is a weekly email news service providing resource guides and reporting on pesticide issues that don't always get coverage by the mainstream media. It's produced by Pesticide Action Network North America, a non-profit and non-governmental organization working to advance sustainable alternatives to pesticides worldwide.

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