Here in California, today is an official State holiday to celebrate the life and work of Cesar Chavez. Chavez worked to promote and enforce the civil rights of farm workers and, with Dolores Huerta, was cofounder of the United Farm Workers of America, or UFW – still one of the United States’ two major union umbrellas. While his work is usually viewed through the lens of organizing for Latinos, there is a significant disability component to his work.
Migrant farm workers are affected by a number of intersecting a complex factors which negatively affect their health and put them at risk of becoming permanently disabled through their work. They are likely to be exposed to harmful chemicals or dangerous work situations and because they often live on the farm under the control of the farm owner, they have little access to health care. This is all complicated by the immigration status – or lack of – of the workers. Here’s a brief overview of the occupational hazards, from the National Center for Farmworker Health:
The agriculture industry is one of the most dangerous occupations in the United States. While farmworkers face workplace hazards similar to those found in other industrial settings, such as working with heavy machinery and hard physical labor, they also face unique occupational hazards including pesticide exposure, skin disorders, infectious diseases, lung problems, hearing and vision disorders, and strained muscles and bones. Lack of access to quality medical care makes these risks even greater for the three million migrant and seasonal farmworkers who work in the fields every year.
In 2007, for every 100,000 agricultural workers in the U.S. there were 25.7 occupational deaths in agriculture. This compares to an average rate of 3.7 deaths for every 100,000 workers in all other industries during this same year. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention label agriculture the most dangerous industry for young workers in the United States, accounting for 42 percent of all work-related fatalities of young workers between 1992 and 2000. Fifty percent of these victims were younger than 15 years old.
During their daily work, farmworkers are often exposed to pesticides. A 2002 study examined take-home organophosphorus pesticide exposure among agricultural workers and found pesticides in dust samples from 85% of farmworkers’ homes and 87% of farmworkers had pesticides in dust samples in their vehicles. In addition, 88% of farmworker children had organophosphate metabolites in their urine.
Infectious diseases among the farmworker population are caused by poor sanitation and crowded conditions at work and housing sites, including inadequate washing and drinking water. Farmworkers are six times more likely to develop tuberculosis when compared with other workers, and rates of positive TB results between 17% and 50% have been reported throughout the United States.
Because farm labor consists of constant bending, twisting, carrying heavy items, and repetitive motions during long work hours, farmworkers often experience musculoskeletal injuries. Furthermore, workers are often paid piece-rate, which provides an incentive to work at high speed and to skip recommended breaks. From 1999 to 2004, almost 20 percent of farmworkers reported musculoskeletal injuries.
Another complicating factor is the prevalence of child labor on these farms. It is obviously difficult to quantify this phenomenon, but worldwide, approximately 132 million kids between the ages of 5 and 14 work in agriculture. In the United States, somewhere between 300,000 and 800,000 children do agricultural work, sometimes working 12 or even 14 hour days. Environmental pollutants like pesticides have greater effects on children and their growing bodies are often at greater risk of harm from musculoskeletal and other injuries.
The punishing nature of this work is well known and acknowledged by government agencies. The Social Security Administration, which provides cash benefits and medical coverage to individuals it determines are “permanently disabled,” has a special category for “the worn-out worker.” This is a provision specifically for someone with less than a 6th grade education who, after 35+ years of arduous manual labor, can no longer return to that previous employment. The most common example of someone who fits this category is a migrant farm worker – someone who worked in orange orchards, climbing ladders, carrying heavy boxes of fruit, whose body has simply broken down and can no longer sustain that arduous labor.
There are three million workers currently in the fields, including a significant number of children, for whom this is the expected outcome – if they manage to sustain their labor for thirty five years. Cesar Chavez fought for those people and fought to protect them from outcomes and conditions that were, in his time, even worse and more damaging than what I’ve described above. We now must continue his fight.
Si Se Puede!