Farmworkers in the U.S.

Wednesday, 04 June 2014

Confronted with an escalating labor dispute, mounting federal government scrutiny, and a state court restraining order aimed at protecting domestic workers, Washington State berry grower Sakuma Brothers Farms has withdrawn its controversial application seeking authorization to employ foreign workers under the federal H-2A temporary agricultural “guestworker” program. Sakuma’s application had requested approval to hire as many as 438 H-2A workers to harvest its berries this season, to effectively replace the domestic workforce that the company had employed for the past several decades.

Sakuma’s now-abandoned H-2A strategy was a response to efforts begun last year by its domestic workers to bargain collectively for better wages and working conditions. The domestic workers, organized as “Familias Unidas Por la Justicia” (Families United for Justice), negotiated some modest improvements, but Sakuma failed to honor its agreements, and a series of strikes and work stoppages punctuated last year’s berry harvest season.

In support of the Familias Unidas workers’ struggle, Farmworker Justice represented the workers in administrative proceedings before the U.S. Department of Labor, relating to Sakuma’s H-2A application. In these procedings, Farmworker Justice urged the DOL not to approve Sakuma’s H-2A application based on the company’s violation of basic H-2A program requirements. Critically, Sakuma’s application violated one of the program’s fundamental guarantees: employers may use H-2A guest workers only if it can demonstrate that there is a shortage of domestic workers available to do the jobs. Although more than 460 Familias Unidas workers are ready and willing to return to work this season, Sakuma attempted to deny employment to workers who participated in strikes last year. With the pro bono legal assistance of Seattle law firm Schwerin Campbell Barnard Iglitzin & Lavitt LLP, Familias Unidas secured a state court restraining order prohibiting Sakuma from retaliating or discriminating against workers who engaged in worker organizing activities.

Sakuma’s withdrawal of its H-2A application came as no surprise, given the rigorous administrative review by the DOL and the state court’s ruling that ordered Sakuma to stop retaliating against the Familias Unidas workers. Farmworker Justice welcomes Sakuma’s decision to withdraw. It remains to be seen, however, whether and to what extent the company will rehire the Familias Unidas workers and refrain from retaliation. We will continue to monitor the situation closely.

by Nicholas Marritz
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Friday, 11 April 2014

For the first time in decades, the current generation isn’t as healthy as the one that came before.” The theme for day five of National Public Health Week is “Be the Healthiest Nation in One Generation” and is dedicated to turning around the declining trend in health faced by Americans today. To address this trend, it’s important that we understand the barriers to good health faced by all people in the United States. At Farmworker Justice, we spend a lot of time contemplating migration as a social determinant of health. Specifically, we discuss the roadblocks that affect good health and quality of life and we think about ways to lift those roadblocks, either through advocating for policy change or through health promotion and education projects.

In terms of farmworkers, migration from their home to the U.S. has a lot to do with their health. Just a few factors related to migration that affect farmworkers include poverty, language, discrimination, and national policies.

Most farmworkers live at or below the poverty line. Health outcomes of people who live near the poverty line are worse than for those who enjoy higher incomes.
Eighty-one percent of farmworkers speak Spanish but immediately after arriving in the U.S. they need to navigate everything from grocery stores, public schools, housing, and health clinics almost entirely in English.
• Discrimination, both overt acts of discrimination and microagressions (every day, more subtle forms of discrimination), is associated with increased anxiety, anger, depression, and stress levels.
• Policy can be discriminatory when it is does not provide protections to workers equitably across professions. For example, many states do not require agricultural employers to provide workers’ compensation insurance coverage for farmworkers, even though agriculture is ranked among the most dangerous occupations by the U.S. Department of Labor.
• Policies that don’t seem to be about health, like immigration policy, can actually have a great impact on the health and wellbeing of our community members. For example, children who hear about deportations may constantly fear the separation of their families and people who cannot obtain driver’s licenses may avoid driving to a clinic.

Not only do poverty, language barriers, discrimination, and policy serve as enormous sources of stress, but they also stand in the way of accessing and receiving appropriate medical and mental health services. In addition, sixty-four percent of farmworkers are uninsured, so even when they do seek care, paying for it presents another barrier.

To reverse the decline in the nation’s health outcomes, it is important to address the barriers, social inequalities, and injustices that contribute to the decline. We must also recognize that the health of each individual is affected by the overall health of our communities so working toward better health outcomes for the entire community will create better health for each individual.

by Chelly Richards
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Thursday, 10 April 2014

The CDC estimates that each year roughly 1 in 6 Americans gets sick, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die of foodborne illnesses. We’ve all seen the frightening consequences from fruits and vegetables contaminated with salmonella or listeria. Eating safe, healthy food, today's theme of National Public Health Week, is a basic building block of public health. While most conversations about this topic revolve around responding to outbreaks or creating more rigorous standards and surveillance by government agencies, few consider the important role of farmworkers in preventing foodborne illnesses.

Food safety advocates have long recognized that the working conditions and training of farmworkers can significantly affect food safety: overworked and underpaid farmworkers in the field are typically not encouraged to look out for safety concerns. If employers don't provide sanitary facilities, or fail to provide the necessary training or economic incentives to stop production when unsafe conditions exist, important opportunities to improve food safety are lost. 

Farmworker Justice is a co-founder of a unique collaboration between farmworker, environmental and consumer advocates, retailers, and farmers that aims to promote food safety and improve working conditions in the produce industry. The Equitable Food Initiative (EFI) has developed a set of food safety, labor, and pesticide standards and a training program to help farmworkers and farm owners and their managers work together to implement the standards. 

EFI's food safety standards recognize that farmworkers are often the first line of defense against contaminated food. Under the EFI system, workers receive training to recognize food safety risks and are encouraged to report unsafe conditions, improper practices or procedures in the field to their supervisor. It’s a common sense approach to food safety that benefits workers, growers, retailers and consumers: fresh fruits and vegetables grown and harvested in ways that respect workers can help reduce the potential for transmission of foodborne illness.

by Jessica Felix-Romero
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