Oregon Farm Workers Are Fighting for Their Lives

I remember, and you might too, feeling virtuous when my family took part in the California grape boycott in the 1970s. I was only a teenager, but to me it meant that I was standing in solidarity with farm workers. I felt a bond, although I’d never met a farm worker as far as I knew.

My small action, combined with the similar ethical choices of millions of others, helped farm workers position themselves to win. And what did they win? What they asked for were basic human rights: safer working conditions, less pesticide exposure, habitable housing and better wages.

History is revisiting these issues now.

Oregon’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is now in the process of setting laws that impact Oregon’s farm and forestry workers. I feel strongly that these proposed new laws perpetuate the economic exploitation and human rights violations we saw back in the 1960s and 1970s when Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta stood up to the grape growers. Unless we, as Oregonians, stand up and say “NO!” to OSHA, farm workers will be exploited yet again. We can’t let this happen on our watch.
OSHA is about to make a law that says farm workers will not get protection from pesticide sprays while they and their families are sleeping in their worker housing buildings.

This is cruel. Pesticides are carcinogens and neurotoxins. People should not be sprayed in their houses, where they go to rest after a hard day’s work in the fields. It’s one thing to have to go to the fields to spray and be sprayed with toxics chemicals. That is oppressive enough. People who work all day around poisons should not have to endure pesticide drift, and worry about their children being exposed in their own homes.

Hidden from view, tucked away in the pear and apple orchards of Hood River and Jackson County, are the buildings where farm workers live. Farm workers live in drab shelters that are not much more than one-room shacks made of cinder blocks or worn-out wood siding with sheet metal for roofs. The interior holds little more than bunk beds and a couple of shelves and a table. There is no running water, no bathrooms. Windows are sometimes made of cardboard instead of glass. The cold seeps in through gaping cracks in the walls and doors. In the summer, the heat bakes the workers under the sheet metal roofs. In Oregon over 9,000 farm workers and their families stay in this kind of housing. It’s not uncommon for six workers to live in a single, crowded room, each one paying $100 a month in rent. Kitchens, showers and laundry are in separate communal buildings. Kids play in the grass between the buildings used for sleeping and living.

Farm workers are literally fighting for their lives. According to Ramon Ramirez, president of PCUN, Oregon’s Farm Worker Union, the average life span of a farm worker is around 50 years, compared to an average of 76 years for the rest of us. Farm workers today are like indentured servants, providing us with the feel-good, living-healthy, fresh-nature’s-bounty food we covet and consume to keep ourselves and our families nourished. We virtuously follow our Paleo diets, Atkins diets, Weight Watcher diets, vegan diets–expecting pristine food to show up in our markets in great abundance.

It is time for us to stand up for the right of farmworkers to be free of poisonous sprays. Beyond Toxics did an analysis of the most commonly used pesticides that are sprayed around farm worker housing. We found that nearly 50% of the poisons used are labeled, “DANGER! Highly Hazardous to Humans.” These types of chemicals cause irreversible eye damage, cancer, brain damage, Parkinson’s, asthma and many more diseases.

OSHA says farm workers don’t deserve a no-spray buffer zone.

Here is a shocking fact that illustrates the environmental injustice of how farm workers are not protected from pesticides: In Oregon, the use of many of these chemicals requires a 300 ft. no-pesticide buffer if sprayed near salmon habitat streams. How is it possible that we value the health of fish more than our fellow human beings?

We expect farm workers to give us their labor, skills, energy, time and generosity to Oregon’s fields and orchards – so that we may eat the way we wish. Let us give back to them. Please take action and stand with our farm workers.

I urge you to go to our Take Action Page and get involved. Come with us to one of the public hearings scheduled around the state. You can submit your testimony through our quick and easy Take Action web page. Call us to find out how you can get involved. Join us at the Tish Hinojosa Fundraiser for Farm Workers concert on Tuesday, November 21st at the EMU Ballroom on the University of Oregon campus.

To help you in preparing and providing testimony and/or email input for the OSHA-run public comment hearings, please read our Talking Points document (PDF).

Lisa Arkin, Executive Director
Beyond Toxics