Flocks presents plight of farmworkers

Joan Flocks Director of the Social Policy Division, Center for Governmental Resposibility

By Leslie Cowan (2L)

While lush orange groves and sprawling agricultural fields have long been an iconic and beloved symbol of Florida, 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 University of Florida 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 UF College of Law in 1991, Flocks practiced law for five years before returning to UF 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.

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.

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. 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 requires more extensive training and information about workplace chemicals than the current Worker Protection Standard.

Flocks emphasizes that only when the view of environmental injustices as human rights violations is achieved in combination with a progressive, public change in attitude toward the risks of pesticides and chemicals will farmworkers’ safety and rights finally be protected.