Moises Garc’a poses for a photo on a coffee farm July 9 in Zapote, Honduras. He said at least 20 people have left the area because of the inability to turn a profit in farming. (CNS photo/David Agren, Global Sisters Report)

Advocates work to reverse unfit conditions for farmworkers

ORLANDO  |  The controversy of Florida’s farmworkers goes deeper than working in overwhelming heat without water or access to shade. Exposure to pesticides cause serious illnesses and possible death for the fieldworkers, as well as likely mental health issues passed down to unborn children.

Problems stemming from heat illness are easier to eradicate than those from pesticides. If a worker suffers from heat exhaustion, there are specific rules in effect that supervisors must legally take to solve the problem. Sickness from pesticides, however, is not as simple to differ from heat stress, and therefore, is easier to misdiagnose or neglect altogether. 

This information comes as no surprise to Jeannie Economos, pesticide safety and environmental health project coordinator of the Farmworker Association of Florida. For nearly 20 years, Economos has made it her life’s work to spread the word of the current risks the farmworkers endure on a daily basis and the hazards allowed by government officials. “It is important there must be protections for all outside workers,” Economos said of the lack of concern that still faces agricultural workers.

While exposure to heat is expected for farmworkers and can be solved through water, shade, and rest, pesticide contact is dreaded because regulation has been hindered in the past. Putting a stop to chemicals used in Florida agriculture is a dire situation. “It is easier to get attention to heat stress,” even though “pesticides affect us all,” Economos said, whose experience with pesticides is extensive. “Studies have shown us the learning disabilities in children and neuro-development problems. Farmworkers get the brunt of [the after effects] because they get exposed (the most).”

Chlorpyrifos, a toxin derived from a WWII nerve gas now used by agricultural companies to eradicate insects and other pests from damaging crops, was restricted in 2000 from certain locales in Florida. The EPA under the Obama-administration couldn’t come to a conclusion regarding the pesticide’s possible health issues and legality. Therefore, any revocations against Chlorpyrifos was reversed in early 2017 under the Trump administration, making Chlorpyrifos fully available again.

The line where sickness occurs from heat exhaustion or pesticide is blurry. Both have similar signs, such as cramps, vomiting, and muscle weakness. By law, if a worker is ill from pesticide exposure, an employer must follow protocol to transport the sick employee to a hospital. Because heat and pesticide symptoms are hard to diagnose as they are similar, it creates an even more difficult situation for the farmworker by providing a window of doubt for the employer to accept responsibility for pesticide contamination. 

Orlando Democrat Representative Guillermo Smith has introduced a heat stress bill. Since nearly 50 percent of fieldworkers already arrive at the jobs dehydrated, and with over 70 percent ending the day far worse, this bill would ensure their health is considered a priority by their employers, thereby making pesticide symptoms more obvious when they happen. 

The bill would promise a statewide benchmark for all Florida farmworkers. Guaranteed breaks every two-hours, free fresh drinking water, loose clothing and shaded areas provided by employers would be mandatory. Requiring employers to check periodically for signs of heat exhaustion would oblige responsibility and implement safety measures for the workers as outlined in the bill.

Equally as important is the emphasis on education. Under legislation, employers would be forced to train their workers in their native languages to ensure the workers understand the risks of the job. 

Furthermore, a two-week period to allow new workers to adapt to Florida’s scorching sun would regulate the gradual productivity of a new hire without the fear of losing his or her job from fatigue. “Acclimation is important,” Economos said of farmworkers who come to Florida from different regions, domestic and foreign. “Guest workers are not acclimated and that will make heat stress more probable.”

Economos wants to see a transformation in the agricultural system. “We are moving towards food sovereignty,” she said of building worker societies that will allow farmworkers more independence. “We have community gardens” that will “bridge barriers by harvesting their own food” by “sharing knowledge from different races and cultures.”

Economos hopes to witness improvements towards citizenship for the workers because most are frightened to mention their legal status as an immigrant for fear of potential repercussions. “If they are unafraid of their immigration status, then the workers would be more empowered to speak out,” she said. “They want respect and dignity and recognition for who they are. Why should they get low pay and health issues? There would be no farms if there were no farmworkers.”

Before ending, Economos made it a point to affirm that because farmworkers feed the world, consumers are indebted to them. The current anti-immigration conversation in this country is “harming people in our community and making workers at a great risk for safety issues. Even if they are documented immigrants, they will not come forward” because they know the American public view them as criminals. “They feel demoralized,” Economos said. “We need to stop that.”