Thursday, July 26, 2007

Legislative committee gets an earful on farmworkers

This week the Agribusiness Committee of the NC House of Representatives heard a bill that is intended make it easier for the state to enforce its pesticide laws in major cases. The Agricultural Family Protection Act, H 1818, was filed by Reps Dan Blue (D-Wake) and Grier Martin (D-Wake) in response to the loopholes in NC's pesticide law exposed by the Ag-Mart case.

The committee did not take a vote, but it heard testimony from many supporters of the bill, representing health and worker advocates, as well as opposition from some in agribusiness.

Steve Davis, a clinic outreach worker from Greene County Health Care, described some of the pesticide injuries he has seen among workers and talked about the importance of adequate showers for workers to decontaminate.

Stephanie Triantafillou of the Farmworker Advocacy Network told the committee that although she works in direct services to farmworkers and their children, her agency can not in good conscience recommend to their clients that they report pesticide problems on the job, because the lack of confidentiality and retaliation protection puts the workers' jobs and housing at risk.

Lawmakers also heard from the NC Farm Bureau and the Agricultural Alliance of NC, who stated that the points in the bill were unnecessary because of existing standards.

The Farmworker Advocacy Network (of which PESTed is a member) has outlined the gaps in NC's laws that gave rise to the proposed legislation:

  • NC’s Pesticide Law contains loopholes wherein agricultural employers are not required to keep accurate records documenting their compliance with Worker Protection Standards. While they do have to keep specific information about pesticide spraying for 30 days, that information is not available to the NC Department of Agriculture for inspection and enforcement the way that other pesticide records are.
  • Many agricultural workers live in housing that lacks telephones, making it impossible to seek emergency assistance in the case of pesticide poisoning. Many of these units also lack adequate shower facilities to wash off pesticide residues after work or immediately after an exposure. The current standard is 10 workers to a shower, which can mean long lines and increased exposure at the end of the work day.
  • Agricultural workers are unable to file confidential complaints to the NCDA regarding workplace pesticide safety, and may be subject to retaliation for such complaints because they are not covered by NC's anti-retaliation law.
  • Growers who violate NC pesticide laws pay only $500 per violation in fines, while other violators pay $2,000 per violation. The bill would make the cap $2,000 for everyone, and would explicitly give the NCDA authority to asses lower fines for family farmers.

The flimsy record-keeping provisions have allowed Ag-Mart to argue their way out of the largest pesticide violations case in NC history. Final judgment in that case has not yet been made, however, a judge's December 2006 ruling on the relevant parts of the case make a compelling argument to the legislature for real record-keeping requirements.

The committee chairman, Rep. Bill Faison (D-Orange), stated that he expects the committee to take up this issue during the 2008 short session. Until then, it's business as usual for farmworkers who use pesticides on the job in North Carolina. But you don't hear them complaining, do you?

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