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Pesticide Exposure, Farmworker Rights, and Immigration Reform

by Kim Level — last modified May 23, 2013 01:52 PM

A look at how policy change on immigration can benefit farmworkers and the future of sustainable agriculture.

I am three-quarters Portuguese. My father’s relatives immigrated from an agricultural province on the island of Madeira, Portugal. They fell on hard times, during which famine and poor crop conditions spurred their relocation to Hawaii. The family, including three children, set sail around the horn of South America to the Hawaiian islands in the 1880’s on what must have been a long and arduous trip at sea.  

Their ship passage was paid for by the Hawaiian Board of Immigration. Once they landed, they started a three-year contract working for the Olowalu Sugar Company as indentured servants to pay back their ship passage. The contract that I have shows how much they each earned – married men were paid $18-$20 a month depending on their age, and the number and age of their children. Women received 25 cents to 50 cents per day, a sum which also depended upon their children. 

Were they treated well? Did they feel safe? Were they discriminated against with their darker skin and foreign language? 

Indentured servitude still exists today, though perhaps in a different form. Immigrants to the U.S. often face dangerous border crossings and pay thousands of dollars to arrive at their employers. Then they have to work off their expenses, or worse, are forced into modern-day slavery. Barry Easterbrook points this out in his book Tomatoland (Easterbrook, Barry; 2011; Andrews McMeel Publishing, LLC).

NCAP is taking steps to be a stronger ally in the movement to secure equity, justice, and better protections for immigrant farmworkers...especially from hazards like pesticides. 

At the federal level, we're pushing for stronger pesticide monitoring programs including better analysis of how pesticides are impacting farmworkers. Better monitoring would mean more informed health and environmental agencies, and in theory, stronger more effective protections.

Another part of this federal work is immigration reform, perhaps the most important issue for farmworkers. As new policies are crafted in Congress, it is crucial that they lead to better working conditions for all immigrants including farmworkers. No more indentured servitude or slavery conditions, but rather an equitable system where farmworkers have a voice.

When farmworkers are given more ability to shape their working conditions, they have more ability to protect human dignity, to strive for labor rights, and implement on-the-job safety and training that protects them from exposure to pesticides.

As a National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) member, NCAP signed on to a set of immigration reform policy principles. These are outlined in the paper NSAC Principles on Immigration Reform (Adopted April 2013) and are as follows:

1. Legalization of all current undocumented individuals

There are an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the country, and the only way to resolve this problem is to legalize them, giving them either work visas (temporary status) or green cards (Legal Permanent Resident status). Long-term residents given temporary visas should have a fast-track opportunity to obtain green cards.

2. A path to citizenship for those who continue to work in the United States

There should be a clear path to citizenship for anyone brought into the United States to work. We should not create groups of second-class workers who can never become citizens. Not all immigrants will stay and choose this path, but the opportunity should exist. 

3. All workers have full labor rights, including the right to change jobs and work for any employer

By granting all immigrant workers full labor rights, their impact on the labor market will be minimized. There should be no restrictions on the labor market mobility of any group of immigrants. This is a basic American value. Farm workers should be included in the protected right to freedom of association and collective bargaining, as they are in a few states. All immigrant workers should also be able to collect on insurance payments that they and their employers contribute, including unemployment, workman’s compensation, disability, and social security. They should also have the right to have drivers’ licenses, have some way to purchase health insurance, and be included in nutrition programs.

4. Enforcement of labor law standards

The continued provision of immigrant labor to American employers should be counterbalanced with strict enforcement of labor standards.

5. No industry-specific guestworker programs

Programs that limit workers’ rights and trap them in specific jobs or industry sectors will simply lead to desertion and the continued employment of undocumented workers by employers for whom the guestworker programs are too costly, slow, or unworkable. Guestworker programs are unfair to the workers involved, present unfair competition to domestic workers, favor a particular set of employers with the resources to utilize them, and create incentives leading away from a legal labor force.

6. Work visa program for manually skilled workers and other classes of workers implemented rapidly

In order to avoid the re-creation of an undocumented labor market in agriculture and other manually-skilled sectors, we propose that the government move rapidly to implement programs of provisional work visas for new immigrants. These portable work visas, good for some period of years, would allow immigrants to enter and exit the United States and work for any qualified employer.  

7. Quotas of different provisional worker types set by a commission

A commission would set the total number of manually skilled or highly educated or other types of workers that would be admitted, define the characteristics of such workers, choose the countries of origin, and decide which employers would be qualified to hire them, if not all employers. It could also conduct research on the role and trajectory of immigrants in the American economy.

8. Minimize the role of the federal government after issuance of visas; rely on labor markets

Every attempt should be made to confine the government’s role to issuing the visas and enforcing laws, both immigration laws and labor laws.

9. Fees are charged to immigrants to cover the direct costs of the programs

Though it is no doubt true that the costs of such immigration programs should be borne by all of society, immigrants can be charged fees to cover the direct costs. Employers should not be charged excessive fees for employing immigrants because it will lead them to attempt to recover these costs through poorer wages and working conditions.

10. Support development programs in migrant-sending countries to encourage options to emigration

Programs to support development initiatives in areas of migrant origin will eventually lessen migration pressures.

11. Support training programs to help workers integrate into American society or return to their countries of origin

Many manually skilled immigrants enter the United States with low levels of formal education. They should be provided opportunities for adult education and skill improvement.

See a recent report by the Community Alliance with Family Farmers for more background.