Thursday, July 10, 2008

A challenging victory

This week the NC Legislature passed a small but important piece of legislation to improve the lives of farmworkers who work in North Carolina's fields.

S 847, "Prevent Agricultural Pesticide Exposure," will not prevent agricultural pesticide exposure. However, it will grant a very basic form of workplace dignity to farmworkers: the right to report safety problems on the job without the threat of being fired, demoted or otherwise punished for doing so. Farmworkers who are punished for reporting pesticide safety concerns will have the right to file a complaint with the NC Department of Labor under REDA, the Retaliatory Employment Discrimination Act, and to win their job or lost wages back.

This legislation also directs the NC Pesticide Board to create new rules that improve how agricultural employers keep records when they use pesticides and workers are present. This step is intended to make enforcement of violations easier for the NC Department of Agriculture, and to eliminate the "he-said-she-said" nature of their enforcement cases now.

This is important legislation, and those who worked to pass it should be proud (particularly Rep. Dan Blue, Sen. Charlie Albertson, Health Director Leah Devlin and Governor Easley). But they also shouldn't be lulled into thinking that farmworkers and their families are now safe from harmful exposure to pesticides, or that a disastrous incident like what has been alleged in the Ag-Mart case couldn't happen again.

Toxic Free NC and our allies in the Farmworker Advocacy Network (FAN) have spent years researching workplace pesticide exposure, talking with farmworkers about their experiences, and examining programs in other states. Only one of our long list of recommendations - retaliation protection - made it into S 847 (read more about FAN's recommendations here).

One of the greatest challenges that we face in advocating for and with farmworkers is actually the democratic process, which is designed to ensure that every citizen gets a vote and a voice. Unfortunately, most of the people who labor to plant, tend and harvest our food in the United States are not citizens, and don't get a vote -- or a voice. No elected official in NC is accountable to farmworkers, except perhaps in a moral sense.

Elected officials don't have to listen to farmworkers - even if they could speak to them - but they do have to listen to their constituents, and they especially listen to the lobby groups and business interests - like the Farm Bureau - who are constantly in their offices demanding specific outcomes.

Many, many citizens joined Toxic Free NC and our FAN partners in advocating for worker protection, both before and during the legislative session. Despite all that, we did not get the best possible legislation for farmworkers. We got the best possible legislation in an environment dominated by business interests.

In the future, we can work harder, we can speak louder, and we can recruit more citizens to call on the moral values of our elected officials. We should and we must continue to work for a just and sustainable future for our state, its workers and its residents. To do that, we must also work for the restoration of integrity to our democratic process, to diminish the power of private profit to act as gatekeeper for our health and safety.

What you can do:

1 comment:

  1. Great post, Fawn, thank you. Whew, it's tough, man.