Student Voices
Apr. 29 2016

Public Health for Farmworker Justice

Hop pickersFarmworker injustices in the United States can be traced to the New Deal era, when (predominantly African American) agricultural and domestic workers were excluded from the National Labor Relations Act due to lobbying from racist and self-interested Southern Democrats. Almost 75 years later, farmworkers still lack the rights to collective bargaining, overtime pay, worker’s compensation without fear of retaliation and other basic rights that are enjoyed by most other American workers.

The lack of basic labor rights and exposure to unsafe and inequitable farm conditions has significant public health implications for farmworkers across the country. Their work is often associated with multiple chronic conditions such as skin cancers, hypertension, developmental disorders, and musculoskeletal pain that can be exacerbated by the physically taxing work, long work days, and uncomfortably hot temperatures.

Ironically, the workers who grow and harvest our fruits and vegetables are unable to afford a healthy diet, resulting in high rates of childhood obesity in migrant farm working communities. External vulnerabilities, such as lack of access to healthcare in rural settings, unpredictable migratory lifestyles, racial discrimination, and ongoing immigration concerns threaten farmworker health even further. In large-scale industrial settings, farmworkers are daily exposed to chemical pesticides that Mailman's Columbia Center for Children's Environmental Health has found to be associated with childhood developmental problems.

farm worker smokingTo raise awareness about the issues facing agro-business workers, Students for Environmental Action (SEA) hosted Farmworker Health and Public Health, a panel moderated by Dr. Jennifer Hirsch with panelists Magdaleno Rose-Avila, Executive Director of Witness to Innocence; Charlie Sadoff, co-producer of the documentary La Cosecha/”The Harvest;” and Nathan Berger, the Long Island Outreach Coordinator for Rural Migrant Ministry.

This panel event was SEA’s first event on farmworker health and justice and the student group's second event this semester to focus on environmental justice. Individual student advocates, who have worked with Rural Migrant Ministry’s Justice for Farmworkers Campaign since the fall, also supported the event.

During their conversation, the speakers pointed out that unsafe farm conditions marginalize and oppress over a million farmworkers in the United States. These farmworkers are largely invisible and yet serve as the backbone of our agricultural economy. In light of the public health crisis among these farmworkers, the panelists spoke about their personal experiences advocating for farmworker rights and farmworker health.

farm worker in Colorado lettuce fieldSadoff’s documentary revealed hazardous child agricultural labor that, at the time, affected 400,000 children in the United States. As the only former farmworker on the panel, Rose-Avila recalled his lack of awareness about the health risks he was exposed as he worked in the fields of Colorado, and explained how his subsequent advocacy on pesticide exposure, sexual assault, and immigration difficulties among farmworkers in Colorado has been informed by his experiences.

Here in New York, Nathan Berger currently coordinates among farmworkers and farmworker advocates in east Long Island and across the state. In particular, he works with farmworkers in the wine and diary industries, which accrue $553 million and $2.5 billion in revenue in New York State, respectively.

Modest successes for farmworkers rights have included the right to clean drinking water and sanitation facilities and the recent inclusion of farmworkers in Governor Cuomo’s recent $15 minimum wage bill. Nonetheless, New York farmworkers still lack basic labor protections. On the whole, New York currently ranks third nationwide in milk production, but between 2007 and 2012 only four of the 34 deaths on the state's dairy farms were investigated by OSHA. These numbers highlight a critical need to amend the labor and public health risks experienced by farmworkers in NY.

The Farmworker Fair Labor Practices Act, promoted by the statewide Justice for Farmworkers Campaign and spearheaded by Rural Migrant Ministry, seeks to provide the same workers’ rights for farmworkers as other laborers in NY state. These rights include a day of rest; overtime pay; guarantees of minimum standards for housing quality; and the right to bargain collectively. The passage of this bill would help to finally secure dignity and equality for New York farmworkers and reverse the Jim Crow-era exclusion of farmworkers from fundamental labor protections.

farm worker in San JoseThere are small but significant actions people can take to support farmworker health. For one, they can buy fair-trade and organic foods, and also volunteer in community gardens and co-ops. On a larger scale, there is a great need for more direct advocacy from consumers and awareness about farmworker conditions. All of the panelists highlighted the intersection of women’s health, children’s health, and environmental health in farmworker issues, and the urgent need for more research investigating processes connecting farmworker conditions and adverse health outcomes.

As public health students and future public health professionals, it is critical that we take action for farmworker health. From social determinants to environmental exposures, farmworkers exist at a nexus of the many public health issues we learn about every day in our classes.

Taking action can begin right here in New York State. Call your senator to state your support for basic farmworker rights and sign a petition telling Governor Cuomo to pass the Farmworker Fair Labor Practices Act. On May 21, you can also join Columbia students in Manhattan to march for farmworker justice.

As we wrap up this semester and begin our jobs and practicums, let us remember that public health means supporting the right to health for everybody–including the people that harvest our food.

By Joanna Xing, Department of Sociomedical Sciences, MPH '17

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