Reports suggest somewhere between 10,000 and 20,000 sicknesses per year for farm workers, which is a staggering number. Also, there's hardly any question about it impacting consumers either, so why do we allow this to continue?
Yet when workers do complain—as in the case in Arkansas—securing hard information can be daunting. Sometimes, workers say, they pay a price for speaking up. When pesticides were sprayed near them in 2010 in the tomato fields outside the city of Newport, in a patch of east Tennessee where the mountains touch the clouds and road signs warn of falling rock, the migrant farmworkers complained to state regulators. When it happened again, they say, they snapped videos with their cellphones.Reading this story, I'm reminded of the stories of my dad's uncle who died when he was 29 years old after working in a car battery factory. The fumes of the Philadelphia factory ended up killing him and a number of other young workers. At the time, too few people cared about just another poor Irish immigrant who worked in a factory.
The tomato farm's response, the workers say in an ongoing federal lawsuit: to fire them on the spot, pile them on a bus and route them back to Mexico. The company denies any wrongdoing or retaliation. In Florida in late 2009, farmworker Jovita Alfau, working in an open-air plant nursery in a rural swath of south Miami-Dade County, said she became dizzy and weak, with numbness in her mouth, and vomited. Alfau said she had been told to tend to hibiscus plants at the Homestead nursery less than 24 hours after they had been sprayed with the pesticide endosulfan. The grower sent workers out too soon after the spraying, Alfau said in a lawsuit, violating the Worker Protection Standard, and did not tell her when pesticides were applied, provide protective gear, or tell her how to protect herself.
Endosulfan is so toxic that, by summer 2010, the EPA banned its use, saying the pesticide "poses unacceptable risks to agricultural workers and wildlife."
Just as too many today dismiss issues like this for Latino workers, before, it was the Irish or the Italians. Somehow people like Justice Scalia don't quite grasp that our families were all there before. Imagine what our immigrant population would have looked like if the rules today were in effect from 1880-1920. Would Scalia's father even have been admitted for his unknown special skills?