By: Melanie Forti, Director of Health & Safety Programs
Most of us buy groceries and are aware of the dollar amount we spend in the food we purchase. But have we ever stop to think about the human cost of bringing home a pack of shiny tomato or a crispy head of lettuce?
Each of those shiny tomatoes has a story behind it, that you see perfectly organized. In fact, every product does. Under that gloss toils an invisible workforce that undergoes backbreaking manual labor to plant, cultivate, and harvest our nation’s food supply.
Unfortunately, to begin, farmworkers with low-literacy levels experience linguistic barriers. That is, they are exposed to unfair conditions when trying to read health and safety information that is provided to them. This is imperative for protecting themselves so that they can avoid dangerous circumstances.
Low-literacy farmworkers likely do not know or understand their rights to a safe workplace, and fear retaliation from their employers if they assert those rights. Moreover, it deters them from filing complaints or interacting with enforcement officials because of cultural believes.
Wages are mostly paid at “piece rate” which encourages entire families to work long, arduous hours, under pressure to harvest as much of crop as possible in a day. The average earned income for farmworker families is less than $16,000 annually. This is well below the poverty guidelines for a family of four in the U.S. Further adding to financial stress, many are also victims of wage theft.
On top of this, there is the issue of having to migrate. Many farmworker families move from state to state searching for crops to harvest, in order to put food in their own table. Relocating with the entire family can be very stressful not only for the adults but also for their children who have to change school multiple times a year, make new friends, and work in the fields while others enjoy summer vacation.
While housing may be provided by the employer to migrating families, the conditions are substandard, unsafe and mostly overcrowded. This housing is typically located in close to the fields and orchards that are routinely sprayed with pesticides from the air. This exposes them and their homes to dangerous levels of chemicals. Frequently, migrant farmworkers labor in fields without access to drinking water, toilets or hand-washing facilities. So adequate housing is all the more critical.
Additionally, because of the language and literacy barriers and being newcomers to the United States, farmworkers most likely do not know or understand their rights to a safe workplace. Moreover, they fear retaliation from their employers if they assert those rights. This then deters them from filing complaints or interacting with enforcement officials because of cultural beliefs.
Pesticide exposure and heat related illness has a big impact in their health. EPA estimates that 300,000 farmworkers are poisoned by pesticides each year. Farmworkers that have been exposed for many years to toxic pesticides can suffer from numerous health issues, such as a diversity of cancers, Alzheimer disease, Parkinson disease, spontaneous abortions, children born with congenital deformities, and others.
AFOP Health & Safety Programs strives to help and empower the farmworker community by providing health and safety education, materials and resources in low-literacy format and in diverse languages.
For information about our programs please contact Melanie Forti at email@example.com.