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Farmworker issues seen as threat to state crops

Harold McClarty of HMC Farms in Fresno County hires up to 1,500 farm laborers each year to tend and pick his orchards full of peaches, nectarines, plums and apricots and knows many of those workers have family members in the country without legal permission.

“We had incredible labor issues last year, and we anticipate it will only get worse and worse,” he said, adding that all the people he hires are documented.

Talk of stepped-up immigration enforcement has people concerned, he said, but talking about the politics of farm labor is “just not my thing,” noting that real immigration reform hasn’t happened under Democratic or Republican presidents since Ronald Reagan. But unless something is done soon, he said, “you’re going to be living in a world without peaches maybe — at least California peaches.”

Albert Garnica, vice president of operations at Taylor Farms in Salinas, is another grower who said he expects the harvest will be hit with a labor shortage.

“Right now, with the new administration, people are afraid to come out to go to work, and then you have the older generations of workers retiring, so you’ve got both hitting at the same time,” Garnica said. More than half his workers come in on H-2A visas for temporary farm workers, he said.

Instead of getting tough on migrant workers, a new study by the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future finds that a lack of legal protections for undocumented agricultural workers threatens both public health and a reliable food supply.

“Vilifying political rhetoric and enforcement actions that aim to punish undocumented immigrants fails to confront Americans’ reliance on these workers for the food they eat,” said Robert P. Martin, a co-author of the report “Public Health, Immigration Reform and Food System Change” released Monday.

The report notes an increasing recognition that the industrial produce and animal production and processing of U.S. agriculture by 2 million farm workers “would collapse without the immigrant and migratory workforce,” up to 75 percent of which is estimated be in the country without legal permission.

The report states that a lack of legal status hurts agricultural workers’ health and their ability to advocate better working conditions, jeopardizing “the resiliency of the food system by maintaining an unstable and vulnerable workforce, which may threaten the supply and safety of food.”

Farmworkers are exposed to pesticides causing sometimes serious illnesses, from skin rashes and respiratory conditions to a variety of cancers, but many don’t feel safe notifying authorities.

“Poverty, a lack of access to health care, and a fear among undocumented workers seeking health care — due to employer retaliation or risk of deportation — are broader factors that also contribute to the underreporting of pesticide-related illness,” the report states.

It notes that the Environmental Protection Agency under President Barack Obama revised worker-protection standards regarding such exposure, with those changes taking effect in January. They require annual training and prohibit those under age 18 from handling pesticides.

Farmworkers also are subject to injuries and other biological and physical hazards they may be reluctant to report. Workers in animal production are subject to airborne pollutants, including multi-drug resistant methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) that one epidemiological study found in the nasal passages of swine operation workers 96 hours after they’d left work.

The report cites a 2008 Pew Commission on Farm Animal Production report that raised public health concerns that industrial animal-processing operations could lead to novel influenza viruses and more efficient human-to-human transmission.

In addition, farmworker conditions such as poverty, substandard housing, long periods away from families and limited education have been shown to lead to depression. Agricultural workers are also vulnerable to labor trafficking and exploitation in part because of the exclusion of migrant and seasonal workers from U.S. labor laws. The study notes that farmworkers are not covered by workers’ compensation in many states, aren’t entitled to overtime pay under federal law and aren’t covered by the National Labor Relations Act, “effectively eliminating their rights to collective bargaining.”

Eliminating immigrant labor would reduce the U.S. dairy herd by 2.1 million cows and increase the retail price of milk by 90 percent, the report notes, citing an August 2015 Texas A&M University AgriLife Research study, prepared under contract for the National Milk Producers Federation.

The report, written by Martin, Claire Fitch and Carolyn Hricko of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, states that these issues should be front and center as the country debates immigration reform.

The report makes a series of recommendations.

While calling for a path to citizenship for this critical labor force, it calls for removing exemptions for agricultural workers and raising the minimum wage under the Fair Labor Standard Act, requiring employers to provide workers’ compensation, extending health insurance benefits using the Affordable Care Act’s subsidies to cover agricultural workers, improving health and safety inspections at small agricultural operations, strengthening protections for whistleblowers, and protecting workers’ rights to organize. It cites California’s Agricultural Labor Relations Act of 1975 as a model for access to collective bargaining.

“The U.S. food supply should be considered insecure as long as it relies on an impermanent, underrepresented and at-risk workforce,” the report concludes.

Bruce Goldstein, president of the nonprofit Farmworker Justice, which seeks to empower seasonal farmworkers, would agree.

“The publicized threat of deportations of undocumented workers has instilled tremendous fear among farmworkers and their children,” he said. “Their kids are coming home in tears, asking if their families are going to be split up. Parents are reluctant to go to public places, including courthouses and schools, for fear of immigration agents waiting to arrest them.”

The fear of deportation also makes some unwilling to challenge illegal wage theft, he said.

“The fear of immigration enforcement is far higher than it’s been in many years,” Goldstein said.


Reporter Amy Wu at The Californian in Salinas contributed to this report.

Bartholomew Sullivan
Ventura County Star

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