Safety first – a key message in any of the AFOP Health & Safety Programs trainings. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has recently updated its guidelines to help companies achieve just that in an ever-changing economy and workplace. The main goal of the Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) Act of 1970 is to prevent workplace injuries, illnesses, and fatalities. Many of these updated guidelines are proactive, meaning they require an employee to report any unsafe conditions. However, not all industries are created equal and agricultural work falls under that exception – leaving farmworkers in a tough place.
Under Unites States law, workers are entitled to certain labor protections which ensure decent working conditions. However, most farm workers lack basic labor protections like health insurance, disability, and worker’s compensation. In too many cases workplace protections – such as water, breaks, and protection from being sprayed by pesticides – are not being met. Many farm workers are unaware of their rights in the workplace, which include whistleblower protections, and if they are aware are too afraid of retaliation to speak up about the violations taking place.
Under the OSH Act, employers are prohibited from retaliating against employees who attempt to stop violations of the OSH Act regulating employment conditions relating to occupational safety and health. Yet, it’s no secret that farm workers have suffered significant abuses at the hands of employers and not come forth. Education about workers’ rights is one thing; getting workers to utilize those rights is another.
Even when we look outside of agricultural workers and the surrounding issue of immigration status, whistleblowers have not received the best of treatment in the U.S. making it difficult to lead by example. How can we honestly say it is okay to come forward and expose violations in the workplace, or retaliation for having done so, when many of us would hesitate to do the same?
Farmworkers toil in the fields to support themselves and their families in one of the lowest paid jobs in a billion-dollar industry. For this reason, there are many organizations dedicated to educating and advocating for farmworkers. As advocates we can and should be whistleblowers, but that raises another conundrum of the good of the individual versus the good of the collective. Farmworker advocates walk a fine line, dependent upon their mission and services, and access to workers is not always guaranteed. AFOP Health & Safety’s training and advocacy work involves building relationships with not only workers, but growers, contractors, and crew leaders as well. When fighting for the rights of the worker automatically makes you the enemy it requires tact, because your actions have the potential to cut access to workers and workplace for everyone other than government officials.
So, there’s no denying that workers’ rights are essential. We are all in favor of people not paying with their lives just to earn a paycheck. And, absolutely: having a system to file a complaint when those basic rights and protections are not being met is a necessity. The question is, does the system we currently have in place suffice? If workers stand up to report an unsafe workplace, does it become easier for those who have been victims of retaliation to file a complaint? The burden lies with the worker, and in the fields our farmworkers are already facing a multitude of burdens. Where is the protection?
It is, we believe, in education and empowerment.