Each day in the United States, an average 2.5 million men, women, and children are up before dawn to tend the fields. Globally, an estimated 450 million people are also employed as waged agricultural workers, according to the International Labour Organization (ILO). While they may seem worlds apart (literally and figuratively!), the shared experience among the farmworker community reveals a familiar profile.
The typical farmworker in the United States, according to the National Agricultural Workers Survey, is Hispanic (83%), foreign-born (65% coming from Mexico alone), low-income (33%), male (68%), and relatively young (with an average age of 38). They encounter a host of dangerous conditions, such as heat stress, pesticide exposure, and the possibility of injury from machinery and tractors.
Interestingly, Mexico, like the U.S., also has a high rate of migrant agricultural workers. The Encuesta Nacional de Empleo estimated 2.7 million agricultural workers in Mexico, of which 1 million were migrants. These workers were low-paid, harshly treated, and grappled with a host of environmental hazards, like pesticide poisonings and poor water quality, resulting in diarrheal disease and parasitic infections. In general, the agricultural workforce in Mexico is young, male, and poor.
Similarly, in India, farmers and farmworkers are predominantly male (68%) and young. Unfortunately, farmer suicides are at a very high rate in the country, due to “monsoon failure, high debt burdens, genetically modified crops, government policies, public mental health, personal issues and family problems.” This speaks to their high poverty rate and the attending physical and mental health problems. Pesticide poisonings are also quite common, since the pesticide industry is poorly-regulated and chemicals are easily obtained on the black market – making them even more dangerous and likely to be used without the proper protections.
In the European Union, most agriculture is concentrated in seven countries: Romania, Poland, Italy, Spain, France, Bulgaria, and Germany. The migrant labor force there is largely foreign-born and much abused. Susan Marquis of the Rand Corporation has this to say about it:
“Thousands of seasonal strawberry pickers in Spain are women from Morocco on temporary visas. To supply markets in the United Kingdom and elsewhere with fresh berries, they work 12-hour shifts in overheated greenhouses, live in overcrowded rooms and according to lawsuits, some were victims of human trafficking, sexual assault, and rape. In Turkey, the Syrian refugees who pick most of the world’s hazelnuts live in roadside plastic tents and get paid with IOUs until the end of harvest. Child labor is common. In Southern Italy, the mafia recruits African migrants directly from shelters to labor in citrus or tomato fields. Gangmasters then seize whatever identity documents they have and threaten violence against them if they leave.”
Farmworkers are on the bottom rung of the economic ladder in the global south as well. In Brazil, for example, farmworkers reported slave-like conditions on coffee farms, where they were forced to work “under searing sunshine or driving rain without respite.” Pesticide exposure was reported on farms where farmworkers were “regularly required … to apply toxic agrochemicals without protective equipment.” The demographic profile of these farmworkers was male and Afro-Brazilian.
In South Africa, conditions are no different. In 2011, Human Rights Watch released a report titled, “South Africa: Farmworkers’ Dismal, Dangerous Lives.” A history of segregation and discrimination in that country has made the rural poor easy to exploit, and the low rate of law enforcement means this abuse has been able to continue, unabated. “Occupational health and safety conditions on many farms endanger workers,” Human Rights Watch found. “The majority of the current and former farmworkers interviewed about these conditions said they had been exposed to pesticides without adequate safety equipment. In addition, many employers jeopardize workers’ health by not providing them with access to drinking water, hand washing facilities, or toilets, even though these are required by labor regulations. When farmworkers are ill or injured, as is fairly common in this line of dangerous work, they are almost always refused the paid sick leave required by law unless they provide a medical certificate.”
From all of this information, we can extrapolate four main hazards and conditions experienced by farmworkers in the U.S. and globally: 1) a high rate of death and injury; 2) poor health; 3) poverty; and 4) chemical exposure.
HIGH RATE OF DEATH & INJURY
With at least 170,000 deaths per year, ILO data indicates that agriculture has the third highest rate of work-related illness, injury and death in the world. However, due to under-reporting, “the real picture of the occupational health and safety of farm workers is likely to be worse than official statistics indicate.” A 2018 report by the Annual Review of Public Health, a public health journal, detailed how “dirty, dangerous, and demanding” the conditions can be. Being overworked, underpaid, and susceptible to occupational fatalities and injuries is the unfortunate reality for farmworkers the world over.
A joint report on agricultural workers from the International Labour Organization (ILO) and Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) stated that, “Beyond forming the core of the rural poor, this workforce is disadvantaged in other respects. It is among the most socially vulnerable, the least organized into trade unions, is employed under the poorest health, safety and environmental conditions, and is the least likely to have access to effective forms of social security and protection.”
The representation of low-income farmworkers far outnumbers those of high and middle-income. In fact, 60% of those employed in agriculture are classified as low-income, versus the 3% that come from high-income backgrounds, according to The World Bank.
HEAVILY EXPOSED TO CHEMICALS AND PESTICIDES
The use of chemical substances to manage a variety of undesirable pests, including weeds, insects, rodents and microorganisms, is standard practice in agriculture. Between 2008 and 2012, over 1.1 billion pounds of pesticide was used annually in the United States to increase production. Worldwide, an average 6 billion pounds was used, according to market estimates by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Exposure to these substances can lead to short- and long-term health complications. Reporting on the global dilemma of acute pesticide poisoning, the World Health Organization states that “the bulk of these episodes of poisoning do not get recorded, as they are considered minor and often self-limiting, and most of the patients do not seek medical attention.”
As you can see, agricultural workers are largely overlooked and underserved, both around the globe and in the U.S. That’s why AFOP Health & Safety makes it our mission to go out into the fields and give these workers the health & safety training they sorely need and most definitely deserve. One of our training programs is on pesticide safety, which we give to all farmworkers regardless of immigration status. We even have a special training for the kids! Beyond Pesticides says that pesticide exposure is “furtive and largely characterized as benign, often escaping notice until it is too late.” That’s why early intervention and training is so critical to farmworkers’ long-term health and well-being.
Let’s give farmworkers what they deserve: fair wages, a decent life, and, above all, greater health & safety.
Pilar Sauber has been working at AFOP to provide program support since August 2018. Formerly in her job at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) at DOL, Pilar worked with the Office International Affairs to provide training and outreach to vulnerable workers.