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How the Potency of Social Wages Can Beat Back Neoliberalism

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Jack Metzgar – LAWCHA

At the core of President Biden’s American Families Plan is an understanding that workers are paid too little in market wages and that government has a responsibility to change that.

If President Biden’s American Families Plan becomes law as he proposed it, my grand-niece Harri will finally have a ?“modest yet adequate” standard of living based on a new commitment from the federal government to provide social wages.

Harri is a 30-year-old single mother of two, one 3?year-old and one in school. As an assistant manager at Walmart, she makes about $47,000 a year, but about $8,000 of that goes for day care for her preschooler. She recently started getting $550 a month in a Child Tax Credit (CTC), but that’s just a temporary boost for the next year that was part of the Democrats’ March stimulus package. If the Families Plan?—?part of what Biden describes as ?“human infrastructure”?—?becomes law, she’ll get that CTC money for another five years and her preschooler will get free pre?K public education, freeing Harri from paying for day care.

Add it all up, and Harri’s income will be topped up by $6,600 and she’ll be saving $8,000 a year on day-care costs. She’ll go from having $47,000 a year in reported income to having $53,600, but with the absence of day-care costs, her real spending income will be enhanced by $14,600, a 37% increase. Where she lives, in central Pennsylvania, the Economic Policy Institute figures that with no child care costs, she would need about $49,000 to have a modest yet adequate standard of living. Harri will have a little more than that. Bringing in $53,600 will not provide her with a life of luxury, but the magnitude of that change should be transformative for Harri and her children. Harri will get more than parents with fewer kids or fewer pre-schoolers, but she’ll get less than parents with more kids or more than one preschooler. 

The point is that the combination of the CTC and public pre?K (plus an additional program where parents of one- and two-year-olds will pay no more than 7% of their income for day care) will make a dramatic difference in most parents’ and children’s lives. It is often said that the CTC by itself will cut child poverty in half. But the whole combination will do much more than that for many more families, including those who are not poor but struggle to get by.

Beyond its variety of impacts on different American families, Biden’s Families Plan is a breakthrough commitment to the concept of social wages, a concept that has even wider application. Along with other Biden initiatives, there appears to be a firm Democratic recognition that most workers are paid too little in market wages to get by and that the government has a responsibility to change that.

Social wages are different from the commonly (and loosely) used phrase ?“social safety net.” Safety-net programs, like unemployment compensation and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, are for people who have fallen on hard times for one reason or another. Like a net, they keep people from falling farther by providing temporary income until they can get back on their feet. 

Social wages, on the other hand, are more permanent, less means-tested, and available for much larger groups of people. They either subsidize essential workers by increasing their pay or reduce costs of common goods and services. Among Biden’s various plans, for example, are wage subsidies for home care and day care workers who now average $23,000 and $22,000 a year respectively. Obamacare subsidies and the Earned Income Tax Credit do this for a broader group of low-wage workers. Many cities with strong labor movements, like New York, have long had reduced transit fares and rent control to keep costs affordable for low- and moderate-wage workers, though better-paid workers benefit as well. In the postwar years, the Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union established cooperative housing and even a non-profit bank to reduce their members’ and other workers’ cost of living.

Increased income or reduced costs increase human freedom by providing a higher standard of living that gives people the chance to choose how to spend money, not just struggle to pay the bills. Harri should have nearly $4,000 in discretionary income if the Families Plan becomes law, something she has never had before. Disposable income is your income after taxes, and almost everybody has some. Discretionary income is the income you have left after all your ordinary expenses are met, the money you can actually choose how to spend. It’s anything over that modest yet adequate amount that the Economic Policy Institute has estimated for your family in the place you live.

Biden’s Families plan will affect my niece’s family and its prospects much more than it will for many other families. A family with one school-age child, for example, will get only $250 a month with the CTC and no savings for child care. Or, a single mother with two children, like Harri, will get the same amount in CTC and in child-care savings, but because she earns only $20,000, she’ll end up with a mere $26,600 and free day care?—?no longer in official poverty but still a long way from a modest but adequate income.

But the concept of social wages is just as important as the specific result of any particular program. It means that the federal government accepts its responsibility to make sure that ?“nobody who works full time should live in poverty.” It also represents the transfer of money from our super-wealthy to workers who make less than a modest but adequate living. Biden proposes to pay for his plans with increased taxes on corporations and on individuals who earn more than $400,000 a year?—?though it would be even fairer if the Walton family had to pay Elizabeth Warren’s proposed wealth tax on their $247 billion in wealth since Harri and her co-workers helped produce some of that.

I’m as surprised as anyone at how sweepingly progressive Biden’s initiatives are, but none of them came full-blown from the head of Biden. They are all programs that have been developed and advocated for by progressive activists and academics in opposition to a seemingly impregnable public commitment to neoliberalism?—?all that movement and electoral politics of the past several decades, all those Fight for $15 actions and the doors Berniecrats knocked on.

As an academic, I am especially inspired by the intellectual work that contributed to this process. Efforts to establish ?“modest but adequate” levels of family income, for example, had begun in the postwar period by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics?—?at a time when unions represented one of every three workers and that Henry Wallace aspirationally dubbed ?“the century of the common man.” That statistical series was ended in the early years of the Reagan administration, signifying that the federal government no longer gave a shit about what was adequate for common people. A decade or so later, a more sophisticated effort to establish adequate income levels was undertaken first by Wider Opportunities for Women and then by the Economic Policy Institute. The Reagan administration didn’t want us to be able to measure how inadequate most family incomes would become. But now we know, and we have one of our political parties at least rhetorically aspiring to adequacy.

The fate of Harri and her kids and millions like them will be determined in the next few weeks as the Democrats cajole, negotiate with, and debate each other about what will be in the final budget reconciliation bill. Let’s hope they do enough to decisively turn the page on four decades of neoliberal indifference to the people who do essential work we all depend upon.

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on July 14, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the author: Jack Metzgar is a professor emeritus of Humanities at Roosevelt University in Chicago. A former president of the Working-Class Studies Association, he is the author of a forthcoming book from Cornell University Press, Bridging the Divide: Working-Class Culture in a Middle-Class Society.


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Environmental groups sue EPA for failing to protect farmworkers from pesticide exposure

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The delay also prevents the agency from setting an age requirement prohibiting young farmworkers from applying such pesticides.

The lawsuit argues that the Trump administration’s decision to postpone the effective date for implementation of the Certification of Pesticide Applicators (CPA) rule could lead to adverse harmful health issues for farmworkers and other people. That revised CPA rule–originally published on January 4 with an implementation date of March 6–would have, in part, imposed strict standards that require pesticide applicators to be at least 18 years old, be able to read and write, and establish an annual applicator safety training. Currently, there is no minimum age limit for the roughly one million certified applicators nationwide.

The lawsuit also states that the EPA failed to provide the public “adequate notice” to comment on rules to delay the effective date of implementation; failed to consider the adverse effects the delay would cause to farmworkers and their families regularly exposed to restricted use pesticides; and failed to consult with other government agencies to review environmental health consequences.

The CPA training would provide in-language lessons for people on the potential dangers of pesticide exposure, how to use equipment properly, how to prevent environmental contamination like runoff and drift, and how to report pesticide safety violations to enforcement agencies. The rule would also require training for aerial spray applications, so applicators would lessen the impact of the off-target movement of pesticides on plants, animals, and bystanders. A 2008 longitudinal government study found anywhere between 37 percent and 68 percent of acute pesticide-related illnesses are caused by pesticide drift into local communities.

Earlier this year, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt delayed a decision to ban the restricted-use insecticide chlorpyrifos primarily used to systemically kill pests on agricultural crops. At the time, Pruitt’s agency rejected calls to ban the use of chlorpyrifos, claiming “the science addressing neurodevelopmental effects remains unresolved.”

Pruitt’s agency also put industry economic interests ahead of farmworker health safety, arguing that the continued use of chlorpyrifos would provide “regulatory certainty” for thousands of farms reliant on the pesticide and that more research was needed. His decision superseded the scientific recommendation made by the Obama administration supporting a gradual ban of chlorpyrifos. Past scientific research found a correlation between the pesticide and human health problems for farmworkers and children.

A 2012 Columbia University study found links between chlorpyrifos exposure and brain development and cognition issues in children and fetuses, even at exposure levels below the EPA threshold for toxicity. The EPA also found adverse risks among threatened and endangered species due to the pesticide.

The latest lawsuit comes days after seven states and several health and labor organizations directly challenged Pruitt’s decision, arguing that the EPA violated the Food Quality Protection Act of 1996 which requires the protection of infants and children from harm by pesticides in food, water, and exposure to indoor pesticides.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of the advocacy groups Farmworker Association of Florida, United Farm Workers, Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste, California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation and Pesticide Action Network North America.

Health and labor organizations, represented by the advocacy groups EarthJustice and Farmworker Justice, have strongly pressured the EPA to act on implementing the rule.

“EPA’s mission is to protect all Americans from significant risks to human health and yet it’s delaying life-saving information and training for the workers who handle the most toxic pesticides in the country,” Eve C. Gartner, an attorney with Earthjustice, said in a statement. “This delay jeopardizes everyone’s health and safety.”

In December 2016, the EPA said the rule could prevent upwards of 1,000 acute illnesses every year. Farmworkers–especially the two million immigrant farmworker labor force?–?are at the greatest risk of health problems because they’re most directly exposed to insecticides. Applicators mix and apply pesticides and can be exposed because of spills, splashes, defective, missing, or inadequate protective equipment, direct spray, or drift, according to Farmworker Justice. Farmworker families are also at risk because farmworkers bring home pesticides in the form of residue on their hair, skin, and clothing, or when pesticides drift into homes and schools near fields.

Immigrant farmworkers in particular are the least likely to receive health treatments or to file complaints because of fear of retaliation by employers. In one case, a woman whose fingernails turned black and skin peeled off her hands and face after pesticide exposure in Florida went to the doctor and didn’t file a complaint because she feared retaliation on her and her undocumented husband, the Palm Beach Post reported in 2003. In a 10-year period, less than eight percent of 4,609 violations of pesticide regulations in Florida resulted in fines, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. And in May, several sick farmworkers in California left the scene when chlorpyrifos drifted into their field because they were likely afraid to confront medical members who could turn them into federal immigration authorities.

This article originally appeared at ThinkProgress on June 14, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Esther Yu Hsi Lee is an immigration reporter at ThinkProgress interested in migration and refugees. Contact her at EYLEE@thinkprogress.org.


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NEWS FLASH: Labor Membership Boosts Incomes, Families And Economy

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Dave JohnsonStudy after study, report after report, and of course common sense and our own eyes are telling us that unions help people and the economy do better. It’s obvious. But the billionaires and big corporations want to keep pay and benefits low, and pay politicians to keep it that way.

Which Democratic presidential candidates will come out in favor of strong labor rights and the laws and regulations that protect and encourage this?

A new report presented by the Center for American Progress co-authored with economists Richard Freeman and Eunice Han is only the latest look at how labor unions enable working people to do better. The report, “Bargaining for the American Dream: What Unions do for Mobility,” looks at “economic mobility” and “intergenerational mobility” and finds that mobility is better where unions are strong.

Big words, but what does this mean for real people? The study found that areas with higher union membership demonstrate more mobility for low-income children:

? Low-income children rise higher in the income rankings when they grow up in areas with high union membership.
? An increase in union density is associated with an increase in the income of an area’s children – as much as or more than high school dropout rates.
? Children of non-college-educated fathers earn more if their father was in a labor union.

Previous studies had looked at how other factors affected mobility: single motherhood rates, income inequality, high school dropout rates, social capital and segregation. But they had not looked at union membership. This study did look at this and found that the effect of union membership is close to the effect of inequality; only single motherhood has more of an effect.

At an event about the report, former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers (starting about 12:35 in the video) was rather pro-labor. He congratulated the authors for the study, but warned not to necessarily interpret the results as causal. He said the data used could also show that it’s the policies of the old Confederate states that cause lower mobility. Those states “are set up to produce a lot of immobility.” Are unions a cause or a symptom of that? The data show that holding all other factors constant, being in a union does appear to mean your children and grandchildren will do better.

Summers said private sector unionism by its nature goes hand-in-hand with private sector monopoly power and monopoly profits. Unions make sure that workers share in it. But government policies have assisted in making union organizing difficult, thereby decreasing membership.

The report suggested ways that unions might promote increased mobility. Union jobs pay more, which can lead to better outcomes for the kids in union families. Union jobs are often more stable, leading to a stable living environment for children to grow up in. Union jobs tend to come with family health insurance.

These gains show up in children who are not from union families but come from more densely unionized regions. This could be because unions push up wages generally, not just union members, and fight for programs that benefit everyone, especially low-income people.

What Can We Do?

While studies, reports, common sense and our eyes show us that people and our economy do better when workers are able to organize to fight the power of organized wealth, organized wealth is winning. Public policy increasingly supports wealth over working people. Unions are in decline, public investment is in decline, income inequality is rising. Even in times of political domination by Democrats, such as the early years of the Obama administration, little is done to reverse these policies and help working people.

In this presidential campaign Republicans are overwhelmingly speaking out for the interests of the billionaire class that funds them. For example, “Jeb!” Bush has introduced a plan to dramatically cut taxes for the rich. The Republican frontrunner is an actual billionaire.

On the Democratic side, frontrunner Hillary Clinton largely avoids championing specific policy proposals, and in spite of populist language is suspected of supporting the wealth/corporate-owning class. Opponent Bernie Sanders initiated his campaign in an attempt to “move Clinton to the left,” to get her to endorse specific policies that could address the problems of increasing inequality and the decline in pro-worker, pro-labor policies that worsen inequality. Interestingly, he is rising in the polls and even overtaking Clinton in some states as a result of his message.

Will the Democratic Party at large see this and rally for stronger labor laws as part of their plan to fight inequality and raise wages? If Bernie Sanders gets the votes to win the nomination and become the candidate, will the party apparatus fall in line? Or will they continue to provide only lip service – and lose elections?

This blog originally appeared in Ourfuture.org on September 11, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Dave Johnson has more than 20 years of technology industry experience. His earlier career included technical positions, including video game design at Atari and Imagic. He was a pioneer in design and development of productivity and educational applications of personal computers. More recently he helped co-found a company developing desktop systems to validate carbon trading in the US.


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FMLA Anniversary: Celebrating 20 Years of Strengthening Families

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Anyone with common sense would agree that healthy families are essential to a robust economy. That’s why it’s worth celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Family Medical Leave Act on February 5; one of the most significant advances for working families in our nation’s history. In 1993, FMLA transformed the workplace and strengthened the American family by helping millions of workers secure job-protected leave to recuperate from a serious illness, give birth or adopt a new child, or take care of a seriously ill family member. Prior to FMLA, many people lost their jobs when these types of life events occurred. Workers have used FMLA more than 100 million times since its enactment during the Clinton administration.

 

Diane, a Denver teacher for ten years, was able to keep her job while battling cancer, thanks to the FMLA. The mother of a young son at the time, Diane said “I was able to take time off because I qualified for FMLA.  Because I [also] had access to paid sick days, and a paid sick leave bank, I was able to get some wage replacement while I was out for three months.”  Diane was one of the fortunate ones, because she had access to FMLA and a paid sick leave bank that helped keep her financially afloat.

As critical as FMLA continues to be in protecting jobs and families, there are major gaps in the law. FMLA’s biggest weakness is that it’s unpaid.  Seventy-eight percent of covered employees who need FMLA, don’t take it because they can’t afford to.  And almost half of all workers lack job protection under FMLA because they haven’t worked for their employer long enough, they’re not scheduled for enough hours, or the size of their company is too small to make them eligible. The definition of “family” also needs to be expanded beyond spouses, children and parents so that the law is more relevant to real peoples’ lives and caregiving responsibilities. Moreover, the reasons someone can take leave are severely limited in the law.  In addition to improving FMLA, paid sick days need to be expanded to cover more routine illnesses and preventive care that aren’t covered by FMLA.

Women in low-wage jobs are least likely to have any paid sick, personal, or vacation time at all, leaving one of the most vulnerable segments of our workforce unprotected. Ten percent of women who did take FMLA ended up on public assistance.

Sonya worked full-time as a medical interviewer for 11 years at a large hospital in Atlanta.  During her pregnancy, she saved up money totaling two months of expenses to help her pay her bills while she was on FMLA. But when Sonya’s son was born prematurely and placed in intensive care and she needed to take additional time off to care for her medically-fragile son, she used up her leave and savings pretty quickly. Even though Sonya had access to FMLA, she ended up on public assistance and struggled to make ends meet.

Unfortunately, many people are still forced to go to work when they need to be at home caring for themselves or their families. Americans agree that there’s nothing more important than taking responsibility and caring for your family members.  After 20 years, it’s time to make FMLA more affordable and accessible. Our country needs healthy and economically secure families to help fuel a strong, thriving economy.

To read additional stories from hardworking Americans who have benefited from FMLA, as well as those unable to do so because of a lack of accessibility or affordability, click here. Their voices make a strong case for strengthening and improving FMLA so that more of us are able to balance responsibilities at home and on the job.

This article was submitted by the new website 9to5.

About the Author: Linda Meric is the National Public Relations Coordinator at 9to5.


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Exploited Filipino Teachers in Louisiana Win Historic Court Decision

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Kenneth Quinnell

 

Just in time for yesterday’s celebration of International Migrants Day, a federal court jury ruled on Monday that Universal Placement International of Los Angeles and its owner, Lourdes Navarro, must pay $4.5 million to 350 Filipino teachers who were forced into exploitative contracts. According to the AFT, the Filipino teachers were brought to Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina and taught in public schools under H-1B guest worker program. This became the first positive jury verdict in a federal labor trafficking case brought forth by workers (as opposed to the government) involving workers who are not domestic workers. It is a clear example that workers can fight back against corporate greed and that, when allies join forces on behalf of working families, victories can be achieved.

The Filipino teachers began arriving in Louisiana in 2007 and most paid Universal Placement about $16,000 to find the jobs, AFT reported. Almost all of them had to borrow money to pay the placement fees. The loans were then charged 3% to 5% interest per month and recruiters took away their passports and visas until they paid off the loans. Many of the teachers were forced to give away 10% of their second-year salaries as well. Those who didn’t take the one-sided contract were threatened with the loss of their sizable investment and potentially being sent home.

The contracts were later ruled illegal and a class-action lawsuit was filed on behalf of the teachers by AFT, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) and Covington & Burling, a law firm. AFT President Randi Weingarten lauded the ruling:

This groundbreaking verdict affirms the principle that all teachers working in our public schools must be treated fairly, regardless of what country they may come from. The outrageous abuses provide dramatic examples of the extreme exploitation that can occur, even here in the United States, when there is no proper oversight of the professional recruitment industry. The practices involved in this case—labor contracts signed under duress and other arrangements reminiscent of indentured servitude—are things that should have no place in 21st century America.

This case is part of a larger pattern of American companies exploiting migrant workers in the teaching profession. AFT investigated the practices in a 2009 report, Importing Educators: Causes and Consequences of International Teacher Recruitment. AFT proposed a series of solutions to the problem:

To prevent such egregious abuses in the future, the AFT is calling for federal, state and local governments to take steps to monitor the hiring and treatment of overseas-trained teachers. In addition, the union recommends:

  • Developing, adopting and enforcing ethical standards for the international recruitment of teachers.
  • Improving access to the government data necessary to track and study international hiring trends in education.
  • Fostering international cooperation to protect migrant workers and mitigate any negative impact of teacher migration in their home countries.

This post was originally posted on AFL-CIO NOW on December 19, 2012. Reprinted with Permission.

About the Author: Kenneth Quinnell is a senior writer for AFL-CIO, and a former precinct committeeman in the Leon County Democratic Party. He is a former vice chair of the Florida Democratic Party’s Legislative Liaison Committee, and during the 2010 election, through the primary, Kenneth Quinnell worked for the Kendrick Meek campaign. He has written for Think Progress, AFSCME and for OurFuture.org on Social Security.


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Groundbreaking Study on Domestic Workers Finds Widespread Mistreatment and Systemic Low Pay

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Domestic workers, such as caregivers and nannies, make all forms of other work possible and play an increasingly significant role in the U.S. economy. However, a new national study found, on average, domestic workers earn little more than minimum wage and few receive benefits like Social Security, health insurance or paid sick days.

Conducted by the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA) and the Center for Urban Economic Development at the University of Illinois at Chicago, the study released today offers a startling and provocative look into the often-invisible world of domestic workers. Based on interviews with 2,086 workers across the country, researchers found domestic workers face serious financial hardships and have little control over their working conditions.

As a critical part of the U.S. labor force, domestic workers help thousands of working families by enabling them to focus on their jobs. Yet, they are often paid well below the level needed to adequately support their own family. Forty percent of workers report having paid some of their essential bills late in the previous cycle and 23% are unable to save any money for the future. 

One worker featured in the report, Anna, reveals how she was “originally promised $1,500” to work as a live-in nanny in Manhattan but received less than half that amount, averaging “just $1.27 an hour.” According to the report, “Anna sleeps on the floor between the children she cares for, so she is the first to respond to their calls and the last to see them off to sleep.”

Anna’s story exemplifies how the absence of legal protections for domestic workers shapes the systemic substandard pay and conditions they experience. Domestic workers are excluded from federal and most states’ minimum wage laws, as well as by unemployment insurance, anti-discrimination and workers’ compensation laws. They also are excluded from the right to organize and collectively bargain for better wages and working conditions. 

Additionally, the majority of domestic workers are women of color and immigrants, a number of whom are undocumented. Researchers found wages differ significantly across ethnicity and immigration status.  

At the launch event for the report’s release, Ai-jen Poo, the director of NDWA, said, “The nature of work is changing [in today’s workplaces]. We need 21st century policies that value the dignity of domestic work.”

The study calls for the end of the exclusion of domestic workers from labor laws, including state minimum wage laws and workers’ compensation. Without access to collective bargaining and legal protections, domestic workers remain vulnerable in today’s workplaces.

However, nannies, household cleaners and other domestic workers both in the United States and abroad have organized for years to raise labor standards and improve working conditions. New York became the first state in 2010 to legislate a Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights, granting overtime pay and other legal rights. Today, domestic workers around the nation are continuing to advocate for similar laws in other states.

In an effort to help raise labor standards for all working people, the AFL-CIO formed a national partnership with the National Domestic Workers Alliance in 2011. Through advocacy and organizing at both the local and state level, domestic workers are joining together with the union movement to help build power for working families.

Read the entire report: “Home Economics: The Invisible and Unregulated World of Domestic Work.”

This article was originally published on AFL-CIO NOW! on November 28, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Jennifer Angarita is is deeply committed to expanding and defending the rights of underrepresented and marginalized communities. She graduated from Yale University with an honors B.A. in Anthropology, and became the first in her family to hold a college degree. At Yale, Jennifer served as president of MEChA, a social justice and immigrant rights organization, and was co-founder of Yale for a DREAM, a student-based group advocating for the passage of the DREAM act.


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Pesticide Threat Looms Large Over Farmworker Families

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No matter how good your next meal tastes, it’s likely it made society ill.

A new analysis by the Pesticide Action Network North America (PAN) draws a disturbing connection between pesticides in our food system and serious health problems among women and children. The report reviews empirical research linking agricultural chemicals to birth defects, neurological disorders, childhood cancers and reproductive problems.

Some of these chemicals make their way into the foods we eat, but they are more acutely concentrated in the environments surrounding farmlands. Children in or near farming areas can be exposed through myriad channels, from contaminated soil to the air in playgrounds.

But children in farmworker communities are especially at risk. While the report confirms the growing public concerns about health risks permeating our food chain, it also shows how socioeconomic inequalities can shovel many of the worst effects onto exploited, impoverished workers.

There’s been much public debate over the importance of organic produce, sustainable farming and regulating genetically modified foods–usually spurred by concerns over consumer health or animal rights. We hear less about the safety concerns that affect the workers who handle our fruits and vegetables before anyone else. For many Latino migrant workers, there’s no equivalent of a comprehensive safety label–no option to avoid the ubiquitous poisons in the field. Many worry that to complain about working conditions would mean being fired. Others simply–and quite reasonably–have little faith in the anemic government regulatory systems.

PAN cites research showing that pesticide injuries are prevalent among agricultural workers. Various studies cited in the report also suggest an epidemic of chemical “drift” from fields into nearby homes and neighborhoods. According to a 2009 report by the advocacy groups Earth Justice and Farmworker Justice (FWJ), “a growing number of epidemiological studies link pesticide drift to specific adverse health effects in humans, including autism spectrum disorders, Parkinson’s disease, and childhood acute lymphoblastic leukemia.”

While the problem is politically invisible, the effects are all too apparent. The PAN report describes the experience of Ana Duncan Pardo, a community health activist in North Carolina, who had a jarring encounter with farmworker families:

Within five minutes I had noted multiple cleft palates and several children with apparent Down Syndrome…. It was shocking and disturbing to walk into a room with a group of parents and children that easily represented three to four times the national average for birth defects.

The effect is likely compounded by the widespread use of child labor in agriculture–children barely in their teens can legally work on farms. That puts kids in daily contact with toxins that could irreparably harm their brains and bodies.

A FWJ briefing paper points to a history of vast dissonance between the federal regulation of harmful pesticides for heavily exposed workers, and parallel standards for the general public. The Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act establishes public health-based safety protections, for example, but environmental advocates point out that farmworker families’ health vulnerabilities are neglected and essentially ignored in regulatory assessments of the social costs of industrial pesticide use.

Children of farmworker families are left with far weaker protections despite their special vulnerability. Despite some restrictions on child workers handling pesticides, according to FWJ, “Children under 16 can still handle Category III or IV pesticides even though the chronic hazards associated with these chemicals include ‘potential neurotoxicity, reproductive toxicity, endocrine disruption, and carcinogenic effects.’”

Even if they don’t work in the fields, the children of farmworkers are not necessarily safe in their own homes. Virginia Ruiz, FWJ’s director of Occupational & Environmental Health, explains that farmworkers working with pesticides carry “take-home residues” on their clothes and skin. While safety warnings recommend avoiding physical contact with contaminated workers, Ruiz says, “It’s sort of unrealistic expectation of people to refrain from hugging their children and other family members as soon as they get home.”

The PAN analysis urges consumers and parents to take action for stronger safety protections. These could include mandates to phase harmful pesticides out of the market, and promoting pesticide-free school lunches and playgrounds.

Nonetheless, the battle against the pesticide threats on farms can’t be limited to the consumer end of the food chain. Farmworkers need to be engaged as stakeholders in pursuing just solutions to the unique risks posed to their communities. Farmworkers have played a leading role pushing for tighter EPA regulations as well as grassroots efforts to mobilize communities against pesticide drift. For example, a community-driven campaign in California’s Central Valley led to the creation of buffer zones to keep pesticide contamination away from sensitive locations like schools, farmworker camps and residential areas.

Kristin Schafer, coauthor of PAN’s report, tells Working In These Times, “Farmworker families were essential to the success of these efforts–some working behind the scenes, others speaking out to demand protections for their families.” She adds that environmental monitoring projects in other farmworker communities have provided opportunities for laborers “to document pesticide drift from neighboring fields, and use [this] as scientific evidence to advance these protections.” Community activists are now pressing California’s regulatory authorities to transition farms away from pesticides and toward greener alternatives.

Still, in every policy debate, farmworker families will face tremendous barriers of race, language ability, political disenfranchisement and poverty. Those aren’t chemical threats, but they constitute the climate of oppression that blankets the nation’s farms, and that corrosive cloud is now drifting into all our communities.

This post originally appeared in Working In These Times on October 20, 2012.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Michelle Chen’s work has appeared in AirAmerica, Extra!, Colorlines and Alternet, along with her self-published zine, cain. She is a regular contributor to In These Times’ workers’ rights blog, Working In These Times, and is a member of the In These Times Board of Editors. She also blogs at Colorlines.com. She can be reached at michellechen@inthesetimes.com.


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The Workplace Fairness Attorney Directory features lawyers from across the United States who primarily represent workers in employment cases. Please note that Workplace Fairness does not operate a lawyer referral service and does not provide legal advice, and that Workplace Fairness is not responsible for any advice that you receive from anyone, attorney or non-attorney, you may contact from this site.