Advocate: Farm Workers “Treated Like An Insect”
PORTLAND, Maine - Farm workers from around the nation have flown to the nation's capital to urge Congress to pass stronger legislation to reduce what one government estimate says are 10,000 to 20,000 acute pesticide poisonings yearly in the agricultural industry.
Alina Diaz, a farmworkers' organizer, is in Washington with several workers who toil in onion and cabbage fields and cherry and apple orchards.
"One of them told me, 'I'm tired of being treated like a roach, like an insect. I'm tired of being sick," said Diaz, vice president, Alianza Nacional de Campesinas.
The workers say pesticides drift over them while being applied in adjacent fields - or even right where they're working.
Protecting farm workers from pesticides is the responsibility of the federal Environmental Protection Agency, whose pesticide safety standards - according to critics - haven't been revised or updated in more than 20 years. The EPA says its Worker Protection Standard manual for employers was updated in 2005.
Farm workers take their work home with them in that the chemicals stay on their clothing and can contaminate their families, said Andrea Delgado, a Washington-based legislative representative with Earthjustice, which is providing legal help to the pesticide-protection advocates.
"Farm workers can't really hug their children when they come home," Delgado said. "They don't have the decontamination areas in the workplace."
The number of poisoning cases is thought to be under-reported, Delgado said, because many workers don't seek a doctor's help. Volunteer medical organizations try to reach out to them.
"They come in covered in rashes and sores and with nausea and vomiting,"Delgado said. "A lot of them have to drive them to get medical care because the growers themselves won't do it."
Diaz said many of the workers she represents are happy to have jobs, no matter how many hours are spent in trying conditions and for meager compensation.
"One of them said, 'I don't mind, Ms. Diaz, to do hard work. And I don't even mind to be paid under-wage. But, you know what? I really mind about the health of my children and the health of myself.' "
An estimated 5.1 billion pounds of pesticides are applied to crops annually in the United States. Diaz said she wonders, "How can people eat knowing that so much pain and suffering went into this fruit or this bottle of wine?"