MISSION: Southwest Research and Information Center is a multi-cultural organization working to promote the health of people and communities, protect natural resources, ensure citizen participation, and secure environmental and social justice now and for future generations

Farm Workers: Are They Really Protected in the Fields?

Advocates working with farm workers relayed their experiences to professional public health workers and community residents at the New Mexico Public Health Association Meeting held in Albuquerque on April 8, 2003. They focused on farm workers working in the fields of the Mesilla and Rincon valleys. These two valleys produce the majority of agricultural goods for New Mexico, and are referred to as New Mexico's agricultural belt.

Olga Pedroza, managing attorney with New Mexico Legal Aid, reported that farm workers have shorter life spans and suffer from many health problems because of their employment in the fields and their poverty. Olga Pedroza states, "The farm workers show me their arms, covered with red blotches caused by the pesticides that they handle." Farm workers are unable to access health care for their families because they do not have health insurance or the money to pay for the small fee charged by the clinics.

Farm workers work in the extreme heat of Southern New Mexico, up to 110 degrees on some summer days. They are constantly bending over because they are asked to hand weed the fields. Although short hoes have been outlawed, hand weeding is legal. Some farm workers, instructed by the labor contractors to apply toxic pesticides without protective gear, are unaware of the serious health risks that may result.

According to Ruben Nunez, a former farm worker who is now working with the Colonias Development Council, "Our bosses referred to pesticides as medicine for the plants. Because medicines cured us of our illnesses, we thought that pesticides were good for us. We did not know that handling pesticides was dangerous." The Worker Protection Standard law, enacted by Congress in 1995, requires that farm workers attend worker protection training and become certified prior to working in the fields. Ruben Nunez states, "I was responsible for educating my fellow farm workers on the effects from pesticides. Unfortunately, the training only lasted from 30 to 45 minutes and did not begin to provide information on all of the different pesticides that we handled. After the mandatory training, the workers received their certificate, a necessity for work in the fields."

Some of the fields do not have portable toilets, even though this is an illegal practice. When a portable toilet is located in the fields, it is often filthy and located in a distant part of the farm. Although there may be drinking water, there are often no cups to drink from, or there is one community cup provided for everyone. These unsanitary conditions contribute to infectious diseases, dehydration, and bladder infections when workers, who do not want to travel the long distance to the portable toilet because of the time taken away from work, decide to forego water so that they don't have to urinate. Farm workers are hesitant to complain about their working conditions because they fear deportation or the loss of their only source of income, if fired due to retaliation.

Causation between pesticide exposure and health outcome is often difficult, if not impossible, to prove since farm workers are exposed to a variety of pesticides, work on a variety of farms, and are diagnosed with latent health outcomes, such as cancer, when they are older. In fact, one source of affordable legal representation, New Mexico Legal Aid, cannot represent them because by Federal requirement, they are not allowed to represent clients having personal injury cases, according to Pedroza.

In New Mexico, formal complaints regarding working conditions are investigated through the New Mexico Department of Agriculture (NMDA), while formal complaints regarding sanitary facilities are investigated by the New Mexico Environment Department. In both instances, the complainant must provide their name. Again, due to the risk of retaliation or deportation, many farm workers are not willing to file a formal complaint with any government agency. Kitty Richards stated that NMDA staff discouraged her from filing a complaint on behalf of the farm workers for acute pesticide poisoning. NMDA staff had told her that the time between the pesticide exposure incident and the complaint file date had been too long-two days had elapsed between the two events.

The panel also discussed the following policy improvements and changes:

  • Implement mandatory reporting of pesticide applications, by pesticide type and acre parcel and provide public access to this data.
  • Revise legal language regarding the minimum hoe length to include the prohibition of hand weeding.
  • Strengthen the enforcement of current OSHA requirements to ensure that farm workers have easy access to potable drinking water, restroom facilities, hand washing facilities, and decontamination facilities.
  • Strengthen the enforcement of worker protection standards to ensure that farm workers have easy access to bi-lingual information on the pesticides that they handle.
  • Strengthen the enforcement of worker protection standards by requiring the provision of more in-depth training of farm workers on pesticides and pesticide handling.
  • Strengthen the enforcement of worker protection standards to ensure that restricted access signs are properly posted.
  • Provide farm workers access to rural health care clinics and quality medical treatment for emergency response in the event of an acute pesticide poisoning incident.

Ruben Nunez is a community organizer who works with the Colonias Development Council.

Olga Pedroza is the managing attorney working with the New Mexico Legal Aid, Centro Legal Campesino.

Kitty Richards is a grant coordinator with the Bernalillo County, Office of Environmental Health and is working on an Environmental Justice grant through the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.

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"When uranium mining and processing became big business during the Cold War, the federal government subsidized the industry. Most of the United States' uranium came out of Navajo ground. The Navajo people had a nominal say in the process at the time, but have endured all of the consequences since then. The land was torn open for our nuclear arsenal and the Navajo people are still dying from the cancers and illnesses that it caused.

I do not want a fourth generation of my people to suffer from the physical, psychological and cultural devastation caused by predatory energy practices. The lack of tribal consent contained in the Indian Energy title means that the federal government could override the Navajo law that prohibits uranium-mining activities on our land."
–Joe Shirley, Jr. President, Navajo Nation
"Senate Energy Bill Exploits Indian Resources"
Albuquerque Journal, July 18, 2003

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