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Workers harvest corn on a farm in Gilroy, California. (Photo: U.S. Department of Agriculture/flickr/cc)

After Decades of Discrimination, Farm Workers Get Pesticide Protections

Environmental Protection Agency creates new rules giving equal protection against pesticides to farm workers

Nadia Prupis

Farm workers will now have sweeping new protections from pesticides under new Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rules announced Monday—safeguards which labor leaders say eluded farm workers for decades due to racial discrimination.

The new rules, announced by EPA administrator Gina McCarthy, Labor Secretary Thomas Perez, and United Farm Workers (UFW) president Arturo Rodriguez, include the following stipulations:

  • All pesticide applicators will be required to be at least 18 years old, rather than 16;
  • Whistleblower protections, including for undocumented workers, must be implemented so that farm laborers can safely file complaints over workplace abuse;
  • Workers or their representatives must be allowed easy access to records involving hazardous chemical exposure.

The full list of regulations can be found at the EPA website.

"Farm workers deserve to be healthy and safe while they earn a living," McCarthy said on a press call Monday. "We will not turn our backs on the people who help feed this nation."

As United Farm Workers (UFW) president Arturo Rodriguez explained, "Racism forced farm workers to be excluded from major federal labor laws since the 1930s, when some members of Congress made it very clear they didn't want black or brown farm workers to enjoy the same rights and protections as white workers. That discrimination continued when farm workers were exempted from pesticide protections first issued for all other U.S. workers in the 1970s by the Labor Department."

Monday's announcement goes a long way toward rectifying those disparities, UFW said. The union was involved in helping the EPA craft the protections, which McCarthy and Perez said was an example of the collaboration and outreach necessary to implement large-scale institutional reform.

"No one should ever have to risk their lives for their livelihoods, but far too many workers, especially those who work in agriculture, face conditions that challenge their health and safety every day," Perez said. "Workplace illness and injury contribute greatly to economic inequality, and can have a devastating impact on workers and their families. By promoting workplace safety, these provisions will enhance economic security for people struggling to make ends meet and keep more Americans on the job raising the crops that feed the world, and we are proud to support the EPA in this effort."

Perez also noted that accountability would be ensured through federal investigations and on-the-ground action to inform workers of their new rights.

Farm workers have long campaigned for the EPA to update its pesticide protections. Laborers and advocates often note the government's own statistics that between 10,000 and 20,000 farm workers experience pesticide poisoning every year; as late as 2011, an average 57.6 out of every 100,000 workers experienced "acute pesticide poisoning, illness or injury each year, the same order of magnitude as the annual incidence rate of breast cancer in the United States," according to Beyond Pesticides, an advocacy group.

"The same rules that have protected other American workers from dangerous cancer- and birth-defect causing pesticides are finally going to protect farm workers," Rodriguez said Monday. "It's been a long time coming, but it has come today."

"It's never too late to do the right thing," he said.

Last week, environmental legal nonprofit Earthjustice produced a video chronicling the history of farm workers' exposure to pesticides to illustrate the need for stronger protections. Watch below:


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