Flocks presents plight of farmworkers before president’s cancer panel

Published: March 2nd, 2009

Category: News

While lush orange groves and sprawling agricultural fields have long been an iconic symbol of Florida, viewed affectionately by state residents and visitors alike, few people are aware of the serious health consequences that the farmworkers who tend to them may face.

Joan Flocks, director of the Social Policy Division of the Center for Governmental Responsibility at the Levin College of Law is seeing to it that the risks of pesticide exposure to farm workers are brought to the attention of the public.

Citing the Agricultural Health Study, conducted by the National Institutes of Health and Environmental Protection Agency in 2008, which indicated that those with “increased, regular exposure to pesticides have high rates of a variety of cancers,” Flocks presented her findings regarding the association between human health risks and pesticide exposure and the social and political disadvantages of farmworkers to the President’s Cancer Panel in Indianapolis on Oct. 21, 2008.

Flocks’ interest in the plight of farmworkers began while she was conducting research in Indiantown, Fla., for her master’s degree in Latin American Studies from the University of Florida. Impressed with the determination of farm workers to work and survive in the United States and to secure an education for their children and even to send money home to still-struggling families, Flocks began to concentrate her efforts in aiding these underrepresented people.

After earning her JD from the University of Florida College of Law in 1991, Flocks practiced law for five years before returning to the University of Florida to manage environmental justice and community-based research projects as a research assistant professor at the College of Medicine. In 2003, Flocks began her work with the Center for Governmental Responsibility, where she remains.

According to Flocks, farmworkers are members of a disadvantaged group. Approximately 75 percent are born in Mexico, leading to a language barrier upon their arrival in the United States, and nearly all are from a low socioeconomic group with little access to healthcare. Additionally, farmworkers suffer high rates of occupational illnesses and injuries, including those associated with pesticide exposure—a significant and serious category of occupational hazards.

Flocks explained that within the free market system, workers’ wages are often thought to reflect workers’ acceptance of workplace hazards, but in the case of farmworkers who are ill-informed of the risks, they are “impaired in their ability to make informed personal risk assessments.”

Even more alarming is that the workers who are aware of the risks to their health that the pesticides present are afraid to speak up, because many of them are undocumented immigrants. As temporary, seasonal workers, they can also be sent home by their employers from work at any time. Their silence is often bought by the opportunity to work.

In the case of pesticide regulation, as Flocks explained in her presentation to the President’s Cancer Panel, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) weighs matters of human health against the economic value of using pesticides in the farming industry. Too often, human health concerns lose and the potential for greater profits take precedence.

The easy question, of course, is asking why the government does not provide stricter regulations to protect farmworkers. The EPA’s Worker Protection Standard (WPS) was designed to directly regulate farmworkers’ conditions of exposure at their worksites and indirectly regulate pesticide exposure by educating the farmworkers themselves. The intent of this education is to empower farmworkers to seize control of their own working conditions, yet the current regulations are still grossly inadequate and underenforced.

Another reason for the failure of government regulation to protect farmworkers is the ability of agricultural employers to use labor arrangements to circumvent regulation. For example, employers often using labor contractors to recruit and manage farmworkers, thereby making the farmworkers subcontractors themselves. Flocks explained that this practice lends itself to even more distance between the farmworkers and their employers and places responsibility for workplace safety onto the workers, diminishing employers’ liability for regulatory violations.

Perhaps even more threatening to farmworkers than the known dangers of exposure to pesticides are the unknown dangers. Little is known about chronic, long-term effects of pesticide exposure or about synergistic and additive effects when workers are exposed to many substances during years of labor. With the constant development of new chemicals and pesticides to yield larger production and to grow more visually appealing produce, farmworkers are being exposed to substances that employers should intuitively know are dangerous, yet are under little pressure to restrict.

One solution that Flocks recommends is to shift regulation of pesticides at agricultural workplaces from the EPA to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) which regulates most workplaces and which requires more extensive training and information about workplace chemicals than the current WPS.

Flocks also urges the public to take a more proactive stance to combat the plight of farmworkers, including bringing consumer pressure on specific visible industries and bringing lawsuits under legal theories that do not rely on providing currently unavailable scientific proof that a specific pesticide causes a specific illness or that the employer had intent to harm a worker.

While these strategies have achieved modest success, Flocks emphasizes that their future success relies on the view of environmental injustices as human rights violations and that only through a progressive, public change in attitude toward the risks of pesticides and chemicals will farmworkers’ safety and rights finally be protected.