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Farmworkers sacrificing health to put food on table, report says

(Wednesday, Sept. 18, 2002 -- CropChoice news) -- The following is from issue #190 of the Agribusiness Examiner (http://www.ea1.com/CARP)


    ELIZABETH BECKER, NEW YORK TIMES: Willie Nelson woke up early, got in a round of golf and then stood on the side of a parched Nebraska cornfield to film the narration of a church-sponsored documentary on the plight of America's small family farmers.

    The temperature was hovering around 90 degrees. On the sidelines Mr. Nelson's road manager was trying to hurry the filming to get the singer out of the burning sun. Five hours later Mr. Nelson took the stage at T. J's, a tavern in this town [Brownville, Nebraska] of 148 people, playing for two hours as a favor to a local farmer, something he has done countless times since the mid-1980's.

    As a superstar, he might be forgiven for abandoning his crusade to improve the lives of America's disappearing small farmer. But Mr. Nelson, 69, says he will not. "It's not one you can dance into and dance out of," he said. "There's a lot of people behind us, who depend on us."

    Lawmakers have rejected nearly all the policies Mr. Nelson has promoted. The farmers he started to help in 1985 have died, retired or taken second jobs to keep their homesteads. Up and down the central prairie, from his home state, Texas, to North Dakota, Mr. Nelson keeps running into those farmers. They press his hand in thanks and ask him to do a little more.

    He predicted that Bono, the Irish rock star who is trying to change how rich countries help poor countries, would discover the perils of raising the hopes of people in need. "Like I was chuckling about Bono, I bet he woke up one morning not too long ago and wondered how he could get out of this," Mr. Nelson said. "You discover how serious it is and you can't get out."

    After Congress passed a farm bill this year that gives ten percent of the farmers --- the country's richest --- nearly 60% of the government's subsidies, Mr. Nelson said he was dispirited. "There ain't anybody in Washington I care to talk to right now," he said.

    Mr. Nelson will perform his 15th Farm Aid concert on Saturday, a nearly annual event that has raised $23 million to help farmers pay their bills and promote their causes. Every day his hot line, 1-800-FARMAID, gets pleas for help from farmers.

    Unlike Bono, who likes to demonstrate how much he knows about development and global poverty, Mr. Nelson does not pretend to be a master of the intricacies of farm policy.

    He likes the price support system worked out in World War II, which distributed government subsidies more evenly across the board, but he said he knew that would never be reinstated. His only desire is that "farmers get enough money to pay for the work they do."

    When Mr. Nelson helped to organize his first Farm Aid concert, he said he thought it would be his last. All he had to do was focus attention on farmers' problems and, he said, "I thought the smart guys in Washington would change it." Now, having given up on arguing with politicians in Washington, he said he was "thinking of ways of getting around the government."

    As he sings around the country, he promotes more farmers' markets, closer connections between farmers and consumers, and tries to persuade supermarkets to stock organic food from local farmers. "Being raised in Abbott, Texas., taught me the difference between a fresh tomato, a fresh farm egg and the stuff most other people eat and think is food," he said.

    Getting around the government also means playing here for his friend Corky Jones, a local farmer who has been fighting for small farmers for more than 25 years.

    For nearly three hours he played his standards, including "Heartland," the tune he wrote with Bob Dylan for Farm Aid. David Anderson, Mr. Nelson's manager, said the show should not be viewed as simple charity. "This will probably be the funniest show of the tour," Mr. Anderson said. "Willie likes a wild, chaotic night playing at a place like T. J.'s tavern more than in some stadium."

    The town showed its appreciation.

    "Even the old people were on their feet," Mr. Jones said. "He helped us immensely. It will be an event that will go down in the history of Brownville."


    BRUCE GOLDSTEIN, CO-EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, FARMWORKER JUSTICE FUND, INC.: On September 10, Judge Gladys Kessler ruled in favor of the United Farm Workers (UFW) and the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) in the lawsuit against the Departmenty of Labor (DOL) for delaying issuing the H-2A adverse effect wage rates (AEWRís).

    She said that DOL could not delay issuing the AEWR's each year beyond the beginning of the H-2A seasons, without engaging in notice and comment rulemaking to change the regulation, because such delay is inconsistent with the current regulation.

    Although there is no way to get retroactive backpay for the workers who suffered during 2001 and 2002 from the lower wage rates caused by DOL's delays, this court ruling should prevent future delays and loss of wages. During 2001 and 2002, delayed issuing the annual wage rates until a court hearing was about to occur in the case.

    DOL claimed that under the existing regulation it could issue the annual wage rates as late as December 31 (instead of around February, March or April), but Judge Kessler said that this would be illegal because the DOL had said in the regulation that in one year the H-2A program AEWR's must be equal to farmworkers' wage rates from the previous year as found by the USDA wage surveys. If DOL wants to give itself the flexibility to avoid implementing the USDA wage survey results, it would need to change the regulation using the proper procedure.

    She held that the substantive claims about unreasonable delay and arbitrary and capricious reasons for DOL's justification of the delay were moot since 2001 and 2002 have ended and no delay has yet happened for 2003 (since still being in 2002).

    That is, she did not rule on those claims. She was concerned that DOL could keep delaying issuing the wage rates, and preventing the unions from getting a ruling from a court each year by issuing them just before the court hearing (as they have done twice), but she nonetheless said (during oral argument) that her ruling on Count I solved that problem of judicial review, so a ruling on Counts II and III wasn't necessary.

    "I believe that it would clearly illegal and a violation of the court order for the DOL to issue the wage rates late in 2003 unless the agency somehow engaged in an extremely rapid notice and commenting rulemaking process to change the regulation to alter the schedule before then. There is still a question about exactly by what date DOL needs to issue the wage rate."

    The Judge implied that they should issue it at the very beginning of the calendar year even though DOL might point to the months of March and April, which are mentioned in some DOL documents. But the bottom line is that the unions won and there is no reason why DOL can't publish the AEWR's in the Federal Register in January, since USDA releases the wage rates in November of the prior year.

    It is not known if DOL will appeal but it's kind of stupid if they do, since they may as well issue a new regulation instead of appealing; the time frame would be about the same. In addition, the growers' have much bigger ideas about changing the AEWR methodology than fighting over a mere delay; they want them lowered substantially.Ê That could mean a legislative battle in Congress between now and December.

    The plaintiffs were the United Farm Workers of America, AFL-CIO, in California, and the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, AFL-CIO in Ohio. Lead counsel on the case is David Dean of James & Hoffman, with help from associate Jeff Vogt (who is now at the International Labor Rights Fund). Co-Counsel was Bruce Goldstein, co-executive director of the Farmworker Justice Fund, Inc.


    Agribusiness claims growers --- particularly small farmers --- would go out of business if United Farm Workers-sponsored legislation is enacted allowing farm workers to use mediation to resolve contract disputes when employers drag out negotiations. Here are the facts:

    * Among concessions to Gov. Gray Davis in the compromise bill passed by the California Legislature on August 31 (AB 2596, by Assembly Speaker Herb Wesson, Dem.-Los Angeles) is a cap of 75 on the number of cases that could be brought through the mediation and review process in the five years before the law would sunset. According to the Western Growers Association and the Farm Bureau, there are roughly 86,000 farms in California. So the UFW bill would affect less than 1/1000 of one percent of the farms in California.

    * There are still some small farmers in California --- and growers with 25 workers or less would be exempted from the UFW bill. But California's nearly $30 billion agricultural industry has always been dominated by large corporations or big family-run operations employing hundreds ---sometimes thousands --- of farm workers. It's the big growers that the UFW usually organizes.

    * Farm worker pay has been very depressed for years. The U.S. Department of Labor says 75% of California farm workers earn less than $10,000 per year. Most migrant and seasonal farm workers earn the minimum wage at best; minimum wage and hour violations occur all too frequently. And benefits are nearly nonexistent; U.S. government figures reveal 90% of California farm workers have no health coverage.

    So even if some farm workers were to win modest pay raises from their first union contracts as a result of the UFW-sponsored legislation there would be little, if any, impact on the prices consumers pay for fruits and vegetables at the supermarket.

    * Every time farm workers have won even modest gains, growers have said they would go out of business. When Congress ended the bracero program in 1964, growers said they would go out of business. When farm workers won unemployment insurance in 1975, growers said they would go out of business. When farm workers won workers' compensation and abolition of the infamous short-handled hoe, growers said they would go out of business.

    Today, agribusiness is a nearly $30 billion-a-year business --- and it's getting bigger and richer every year.


    KIMI JACKSON, CASILLAS PESTICIDE ACTION PROJECT, COLORADO LEGAL SERVICES, MIGRANT FARM WORKER DIVISION: As we enjoy the bounty of harvest season, the farm workers who pick our crops would like us to be aware of the dangers workers face year after year. These dangers are illustrated in a report released by Colorado Legal Services, Migrant Farm Worker Division.

    The report shows that Colorado farm workers frequently experience pesticide poisoning, and that many employers illegally place their workers' health and lives in danger. For example, 59% of the surveyed farm workers reported that they had never received training in pesticide safety, which is required under United States laws. After working in the fields, 49% of the farm workers reported experiencing skin irritation, headaches, or inflamed eyes.

    The workers are treated as disposable, if they get injured or sick, employers think they can just get more. But the workers are human beings with families to feed.

    The report, "Hidden Costs: Farm Workers Sacrifice their Health to Put Food on Our Tables," examines Colorado Legal Services' Casillas Pesticide Action Project's survey of migrant farm workers conducted in Colorado during the 2001 growing season. The detailed survey asked for information about the farm workers' experience with pesticides, training and medical conditions.

    Forty-seven percent of the surveyed farm workers reported irritation of the nose or throat after working. Twenty-six percent stated that they had experienced dizziness or weakness. Twenty-two percent reported difficulty breathing. Forty-eight percent of the farm workers reported that they had been sent to work in a treated field before it was safe to enter.

    The surveyed workers stated that they took safety precautions when facilities were available. When hand-washing water was available, 96% of the surveyed workers said they used it. But 41% reported that they did not have access to hand washing water while they were working and were unable to wash pesticide residue from their skin.

    These figures would improve if employers complied with federal laws designed to protect farm workers from toxic pesticide exposure. Current compliance levels appear to be very low. In 2001, United States Environmental Protection Agency inspectors found that 91% of inspected Colorado growers were in violation of pesticide safety laws. Increased compliance would lead to fewer pesticide exposures and fewer of farm workers.

    Forty to 50,000 farm workers labor in Colorado each year. Ninety-seven percent are Hispanic. They work in one of the most hazardous occupations in the United States and suffer from high rates of occupational injuries. The average farm worker earns between $5,000 and $7,500 per year.

    Colorado Legal Services is a non-profit organization working to provide civil legal services to low-income people. The Casillas Pesticide Action Project (CPAP) is a project of Colorado Legal Services, Migrant Farm Worker Division. CPAP was founded in September 2000, funded by a fellowship from Equal Justice Works.

    CPAP's name honors the memory of Jose Casillas, a seventeen-year-old farm worker who died after being sprayed with pesticides twice during a seven-day period. Lacking pesticide training, he thought he had been sprayed with water and he continued wearing his contaminated clothing and even slept in them.


    NEELY TUCKER & JUDY SARASOHN, WASHINGTON POST: The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which has faced withering criticism and a class action lawsuit from black farmers over what the department had acknowledged as racial bias going back decades, has created an office to help minority and socially disadvantaged farmers apply for federal farm loans.

    The Office of Minority and Socially Disadvantaged Farmers Assistance, operating under the Farm Service Agency, will operate a toll-free help-line to answer queries on USDA loans and programs (1-866-538-2610). The new office shows USDA is "strengthening programs that serve" minority and socially disadvantaged growers, Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman said.

    Although the class action settlement in 1999 was hailed by black farmers and federal officials as a major civil rights victory, it has since become a bitter disappointment to many of the people it was supposed to have helped. Many farmers' claims have been rejected under the settlement.

    In the continuing wrangling over the settlement, a federal judge [September 11] denied two requests by several black farmers that would have ended the historic agreement.

    U.S. District Judge Paul L. Friedman denied a request to vacate the settlement under which more than $600 million has been paid out to nearly 13,000 farmers. He also denied the plaintiffs' request to fire the attorneys who negotiated the settlement. The farmers charged that the sprawling settlement was too flawed to work and should be renegotiated. They cited criticisms of their attorneys by Friedman and the U.S. Court of Appeals as reasons for the lawyers' dismissal.

    Friedman ruled the attorneys' failings were not serious enough to warrant their firing.

    (For related item, go to http://www.cropchoice.com/leadstry.asp?recid=920