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Deadly Inequality for Farm Workers

By Lin Nelson

Reprinted with permission of Works in Progress Heat, smoke and climate assault have become “new normal” conditions that daily threaten workers, especially in agriculture.

There is no heat rule at the federal level to protect workers. In Washington, Oregon and California there are emergency rules, but they are temporary. (Source: National Council for Occupational Safety and Health)

And there are meetings… and more meetings. There are the organizing efforts of regional health care providers, unions, and advocacy groups. And there are the meetings of agencies whose personnel struggle to create rules that are supposed to protect workers—even though they mostly don’t have time for those meetings in their increasingly stressed workdays.

A lot can be said about the meetings, rule creations and behind–the–scenes contortions that agency folks go through to navigate tensions between workers and employers. There are dedicated public workers at the federal level (EPA, OSHA, and the NIHHIS—National Integrated Heat Health Info System) and in state agencies.

They struggle to protect the rights of workers facing the brunt of climate change—especially outdoor workers, from firefighters to truck drivers to construction crews. This includes farmworkers, who face multiple risks at work, and their families who often live in overheated situations. Among farmworkers, the undocumented risk retaliation in addition to the hazards they face.

On the West Coast, a campaign by the Western State Pact has had an impact, pressuring governors in three states to create more unified and effective protections across the region. Washington’s temporary rules on heat/smoke call for rest–breaks, shade, water, attention to workers’ pre–existing health conditions and emergency work stoppage when air quality indexes hit high marks. The other two states have similar measures, with Oregon’s reportedly the most protective, and California’s emerging due to energized community advocacy.

Against what often feels like the glacial, “too late” process of government deliberation on the impacts of climate change, there are those who are vocal witnesses to worsening conditions. These are advocates who stand alongside the agricultural workers struggling hard just to get by. Here are some of their voices

Breaking through the seasonal cycle

Farmworker advocates have every reason to be furious and frustrated that the economic, social, and health conditions of the agriculture worker community have improved so little over the decades. Their voices have been overpowered and hushed with the seasonal cycles that result in ebbing and receding of the public visibility of their struggles.

Among those who never recede are the promotores de salud…the community health workers. These community advocates, as well as other worker justice activists, are swelling their ranks with renewed power. Many of “their own” are back in the communities with solid credentials in environmental justice, medical professionals, expanded state and regional networking. Elevating the need for access, expecting community needs to be responded to in more sustainable ways, assuring that respect and cultural lens inhabits all organizational strategies. There is power in these credentials as they never forget their agricultural roots.

—Kathy Baros–Friedt, community social justice advocate, member of Strengthening Sanctuary Alliance and prior director of WA State Human Rights Commission

Only a first step

WA State’s emergency rules must be seen as a first step. The State did make some attempts to align rules with our West Coast neighbors, importantly at the insistence of CBO’s and farmworker advocates. The alignment of heat and wildfire smoke rules is to prevent workers from dying, plain and simple.

Our dream is that the Western State Pact for Heat and Wildfire smoke would be the catalyst for the rest of the country. There is a precedent where governors from West Coast states joined together for the health and safety of their residents during COVID. What we hear from workers is in spite of the new rules it is business as usual. “Let’s skip the breaks so we can go home early,” or go in early in the morning, only to be called to come back in the evening when it is cooler.

—Mary Jo Ybarra–Vega MS, LHMC, Outreach Health Coordinator, Quincy Community Health Center, Quincy WA

Enforcing the protections

PCUN is pleased to see Oregon OSHA adopt one of the strongest heat standards in the country. Many farmworkers have shared the benefits of having access to water, shaded break areas, and additional breaks on high heat days.

However, there are still workers who lack access to shade or feel pressured to work through their breaks in order to earn more income. As unions and advocacy groups we must continue working with our state labor agencies to improve the enforcement of these new protective rules and laws.

Unfortunately, some farmworkers have worked even fewer hours this harvest season because of the extreme heat, which has resulted in lower wages and added stress to pay for expenses. The climate crisis continues to negatively impact our communities, and we must work to adapt to our new realities

—Ira Cuello Martinez, Policy Advocacy Director, PCUN—Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste, Woodburn OR

Advocating for farmworker justice

IORC along with the Idaho Immigrant Resource Alliance (IIRA) is providing heat and smoke supplies, such as water, Gatorade, hats, bandanas, etc. to farmworkers all over Idaho as a way to protect them from the intense heat. With Idaho’s temperatures reaching over 100 F for almost two straight weeks with only slight relief for a day or two, we know that this will be the norm for our summers in the state and this will adversely affect farmworkers in the area.

With the lack of permanent rules and regulations, farmworkers are more likely to suffer heat–related illnesses and lack of protection. IORC has a Latinx chapter, Vision 2C Resource Council that is working on a Farmworker Justice Campaign to organize around heat, smoke and pesticide use. This involves advocacy work, healthcare, research, and policy work to address how these factors impact farmworkers and to find a solution to support them through this time of drastic climate change.

—Irene Ruiz, Bilingual Chapter Organizer, Idaho Organization of Resource Councils, Boise

At the national level, there are major efforts to offer information and strategic support to workers at risk. The National Council on Occupational Safety & Health works with unions, worker centers, immigrant rights groups and health rights organizations to support workers. COSH organizes workshops as part of a national alliance pushing for meaningful heat/climate protections. Public Citizen, a key organizer for that group, has taken up the challenge with Congress and OSHA to ensure worker safety and protection from retaliation. Public Citizen’s Juley Fulcher recently announced that Congress is showing signs of support for the labor–promoted Asuncion Valdivia Heat Illness & Prevention Act.

There is also growing pressure on OSHA to activate an emergency rule on heat, certainly not too much to ask of OSHA, launched a half–century ago. Time moves on, especially for those out in the fields, shouldering the heat of these difficult times.

What can we do?

Kathy Baros–Friedt reminds us to continue to pay attention: Educate ourselves about the links between climate crisis and the health and work of the agricultural workers who are vital to our economy. Make connections where they might otherwise slip through the cracks. Where we can, humbly make introductions and then step out of the way so that those eloquent voices are heard.

Lin Nelson is a member of Olympia–based Strengthening Sanctuary Alliance and part of the COSH Advisors network.

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