Farmworkers in the U.S.

Tuesday, 24 March 2015
In the United States, approximately 167 agricultural workers get injured on the job daily from pesticide poisoning, falls, heat stress or other occupational hazards. Constant workplace hazards such as these make agricultural work one of the most dangerous occupations, with 570 deaths occurring in 2011 alone. One would expect farmworkers to be paid fairly for the risks they work under each day, yet one out of four farmworker families fall below the poverty line.
 
This week, from Tuesday, March 24th to Tuesday, March 31st, marks National Farmworker Awareness Week. We pay respect to the 2.4 million farmworkers who labor in our fields to feed not only us Americans but also the world. In 2013, exports of consumer-oriented agricultural products from the United States resulted in $64 billion in trade, increasing two-fold since 1995

During this week, we not only acknowledge this significant contribution of farmworkers but also call for better living and working conditions for farmworkers and their families by working to educate ourselves and raise public awareness. 

 

Because 81% of Americans now live in urban areas, we are not regularly reminded of the labor that goes into producing our food. We cannot simply peer out of their windows and see how our food is grown and harvested for our daily meals. Moreover, the green bell peppers that are neatly packed in clean plastic wrap in the produce aisle do not remind us of the many hours a farmworker spends in the fields for low wages under dangerous conditions. 

Farmworker Justice is partnering with a coalition of farmworker organizations led by the Student Action with Farmworkers to celebrate National Farmworker Awareness Week. Please see our partners’ scheduled events and follow their blogs as they discuss the following pressing issues each day: living conditions, pesticides and health, education, community, living wages, rights, solidarity, and family. You can become further engaged in this week by sharing the image from this post on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter, and also by following us on Facebook or Twitter. Together, we can improve the working and living conditions of farmworkers. La unión hace la fuerza. ¡Si se puede!

 

by Juan Guevara
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Wednesday, 11 February 2015

Valentine’s Day is soon upon us. This Saturday many people surprise their loved ones with gifts of jewelry, chocolate, or a valentine card, but the most popular gift is flowers. Over 100 million roses are sold on Valentine’s Day in the US every year.

Included in just about every bouquet is a fern leaf to add a touch of greenery and extra fullness. Ferns pull the green color from the stems up a little higher into the bouquet and provide a nice frame for the brightly colored flowers.

Farmworker Justice works with community-based organizations to serve workers in the commercial ferneries in Florida and, through this work, we’ve developed a special appreciation for the men and women who cut fern leaves. They work in fields covered with a ceiling of shade cloth that keeps the air and ground damp to mimic the natural growing conditions of ferns. The wet conditions put the workers at higher risk for pesticide exposure, as damp clothes transfer more chemical onto the skin. The workers cover their clothes with trash bags in an effort to stay dry, even though the heat can feel suffocating. Many workers have told us of health problems related to pesticide exposure, such as itchy skin rashes and throat irritation, which they experience on a regular basis. The moist growing conditions make a hospitable environment for snakes, and workers have told us that snake bites occur all too often and they commonly fear being bitten.

Each day, the fernery workers bend over with shears and cut leaves one-by-one, being careful to cut them all at the same length. They create bunches of leaves and are paid for the number of bunches they cut, which means their income is dependent on how quickly they work. Most workers earn close to the minimum wage, with no benefits. They’ve told us that bathrooms and drinking water are not always provided. They bring their own water but, on really hot days, they say they can’t drink enough water to stay hydrated. They’ve told us that they feel the symptoms of heat illness, including dizziness, vomiting, and fatigue.

The product resulting from this dangerous and difficult work is a beautiful piece of greenery that adorns valentine bouquets across the country. This Valentine’s Day, Farmworker Justice would like to encourage you to think about the people who cut the flowers and fern leaves that are part of the beautiful bouquets enjoyed this holiday and take action to help fernery and other agricultural workers secure stronger pesticide protections. We are participating in a “Valentine Love for Farmworkers” Thunderclap. Follow this link and send a social justice Valentine to the EPA’s Gina McCarthy urging the agency to end the delay in updating the rules that protect farmworkers from toxic pesticides!

by Chelly Richards
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Monday, 09 February 2015

Farmworker Justice Welcomes Guest Bloggers from the  Housing Assistance Council : Lance George, Research Director, and Leslie Strauss, Senior Policy Analyst

“Rural America’s Silent Housing Crisis,” an article in The Atlantic magazine’s February edition, describes the overlooked plight of rural families who struggle to obtain quality housing they can afford. The article does not look specifically at the housing problems of farmworkers – a crisis that deserves attention because it is not only silent, but often invisible.

Because of the nature of their employment and working conditions, farmworkers’ housing options are often substantially different from the overall market in terms of cost and quality. Most farmworkers find housing through the private market. But rental housing is not as plentiful in rural places as it is in most cities. Additionally, landlords typically ask for a security deposit, a credit check, and a long-term commitment, requirements that often conflict with the unique conditions of the farm labor industry. Furthermore, especially in remote rural areas that are typically not subject to standards or regulations, available rentals may be substandard and expensive relative to farmworkers’ incomes. 

A smaller, yet still substantial number of farmworkers live in housing provided by employers. The prevalence of employer-owned housing has declined markedly over the past few decades, and it is estimated that now between 10 and 15 percent of farmworker housing units nationally are made available by employers. In many states, employer-provided housing is regulated to some degree for health and safety reasons, thus benefiting workers whose other housing options are not subjected to scrutiny. But employer-owned housing is not problem-free either. A situation where an employer also serves as a landlord may compound an already asymmetric relationship. Some farmworkers may find it uncomfortable to complain about poor housing conditions to their employer.

Regardless of how they obtain housing, farmworkers cope with a range of problems including costs that typically do not fit their incomes, substandard quality, and the need for short-term housing during temporary work. Farmworkers disproportionally live in crowded housing conditions. The Housing Assistance Council estimates that at least one-third of farmworkers live in crowded conditions -- more than six times the rate of crowded homes nationally. 

Very few farmworkers receive any form of housing assistance from a state, local, or federal government entity. The federal government has been working to combat farmworker housing problems for more than 40 years through grant and loan programs administered through various federal departments and initiatives. One important farmworker housing resource is the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Section 514/516 Farm Labor Housing program, which provides funding to buy, build, improve, or repair housing for farm laborers. Despite moderate increases in overall funding, however, the development of new federally funded farm labor housing has been steadily dropping over the past 25 years. 

Rural nonprofit organizations have proved that developing decent, affordable housing for farmworkers is possible. Examples can be seen online at, for example, Yakima Office of Rural and Farmworker Housing and CASA of Oregon.  With the prevalence of crowded, substandard, and unaffordable housing conditions, an increased investment in housing for farmworkers is critical. This investment should be multifaceted and come from private as well as public sources. We have a responsibility to ensure that the people who are integral elements of our nation’s food supply are appropriately compensated, housed, and protected. 

by Jessica Felix-Romero
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