Last year, the United Farm Workers worked with the Obama administration to win stronger pesticide protections for America’s 2 million farmworkers and their families through the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s new Worker Protection Standards.
We joined Environmental Protection Agency administrator Gina McCarthy in unveiling the new federal rule at a unionized farm near Stockton. It strengthens requirements for training, notification, pesticide safety and hazard communication plus use of personal protective equipment and availability of routine washing and emergency decontamination.
The rule also ends decades of discrimination against farmworkers, who prior to the rule had far fewer pesticide protections than all other American workers.
Farmworkers labor in one of the nation’s most dangerous industries and suffer the highest rates of chemical injuries and skin disorders. They have historically been among the least protected from on-the-job dangers. So the EPA’s standards are welcome relief.
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Yet recently, Republican Rep. Ken Calvert of Corona convinced a majority of his colleagues on the House appropriations subcommittee that oversees funding for the EPA to significantly limit enforcement of the pesticide rule.
A minimum protection in the standards is the ability of farmworkers across the country to obtain information they need for medical treatment, workers’ compensation or to exercise their legal rights by having designated representatives request information on their behalf about the pesticides to which they are exposed while working.
These representatives can be co-workers, spouses, health care providers, union representatives, social workers or attorneys. In other industrial sectors, workers exposed to toxic substances or harmful physical agents have the right of access to relevant exposure records through their designated representatives.
So why do Calvert and the majority of members on his subcommittee seek to deny farmworkers this minimum guarantee?
Are they aware that most U.S. farmworkers are immigrants, Latinos and/or from indigenous communities? Or that the majority of farmworkers speak little or no English – and some don’t even speak Spanish, but rather indigenous languages such as Triqui or Mixteco?
Do they know these language limitations as well as illness, incapacitation or simple fear impede many workers’ ability to communicate with their employers or access vital pesticide application information?
Imagine if you or your loved one was unable to or prohibited from receiving critical information that directly impacted his or her health and safety.
California is home to more farmworkers than any state. It is estimated that one-third of them speak indigenous languages. Calvert represents the 42nd Congressional District, where 37 percent of his constituents are Latino – and an overwhelming majority of them identify Mexico as their country of origin or ancestry.
Rep. David Valadao, a subcommittee member who also supported inhibiting farmworkers from exercising their rights under the EPA pesticide rule, represents the 21st Congressional District covering Kings County and portions of Fresno, Kern and Tulare counties. Valadao’s constituents are 74 percent Latino. His district boasts the highest concentration of farmworkers in the nation.
Texas Rep. Henry Cuellar, a conservative Democratic subcommittee member, called on his Republican colleagues to back off of their anti-farmworker proposal, but to no avail. The Republican majority on the subcommittee, including Calvert and Valadao, voted along party lines to send the proposal for a vote by the full House of Representatives.
Last year’s EPA pesticide standards finally provided the same protections for farmworkers that other U.S. workers have long enjoyed. But how can farmworkers exercise their new-found rights when they are denied a key safeguard workers in other industries enjoy: the right of access to critical information they need to preserve their health and ensure their proper treatment or legal protection?
California Reps. Calvert and Valadao need to explain to their constituents why this is an equitable and just policy.
Arturo S. Rodriguez is president of the United Farm Workers of America.