Monday, April 13, 2009

cesar chavez day: a brief history and overview of farm worker health issues (only two weeks late)

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the White House Garden and hinted at the politics of food. Given that Cesar Chavez Day was 2 weeks ago, I would like to highlight issues around farmworker health. Today, there are approximately 26,000 people of Asian descent (not specified if this includes Pacific Islanders) employed in agriculture/forestry/fishing/hunting, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics [1]. APIs have played an interesting role in America's labor history. But “interesting” doesn't always mean acknowledged. In my high school classes, the topics of API and labor have mostly been discussed in the context of Chinese railroad workers, but not in the story of the United Farm Workers.

The 1965 Delano Strike, out of which arose the United Farm Workers, was actually initiated by Pilipino workers, instead of Chavez and the Mexican farm workers. According to John Delloro,

“[e]arlier, Cesar Chavez of the mostly Mexican National Farm Workers Association (NFWA) had refused the request of Larry Itliong of the predominantly Pilipino Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC) to join the strike. A week after the strike began, Larry approached Cesar again and this time Cesar relented, with pushing from Dolores Huerta and his wife Helen Chavez, and the Mexican workers overwhelmingly voted to join the Pilipino farm workers. Both unions merged to form the UFW.”

Additionally, Itliong and others from AWOC were prominent leaders within the new union. Itliong was the second in command of the UFW, and Philip Vera Cruz, Andy Imutan, and Pete Velasco all held top leadership positions [2].

Over the years, the UFW has won several major victories, many of them health-related, such as:
  • Union contracts requiring rest periods, toilets in the fields, hand washing facilities, and limiting pesticide exposure
  • Safety and sanitation regulations in farm labor camps
  • the first comprehensive union health insurance plan [3]

However, worker health remains a significant problem today. According to the National Center for Farmworker Health, agriculture is one of the most dangerous industries in the United States. In addition to a high fatality rate (second only to construction), farm workers also face “exposure to pesticides, skin disorders, infectious diseases, lung problems, hearing and vision disorders, and strained muscles and bones.” Working conditions, such as long hours, hot air and humidity, the lack of potable water, and noncompliance with safety regulations often exacerbate these health problems. Additionally, frequent migration decreases access to many basic health services. [4]

Because most of us are not engaged in the agricultural industry, the situation of farm workers is often invisible. However, the recent passage of California's Prop 2, which prohibits animals from being confined to cages where they cannot turn around, signals that we as a society do think about the conditions under which our food is produced. [5] I sincerely hope, though, that we extend this consciousness to the people who allow us to eat.

For more information on farm worker health, please visit the National Center for Farm Worker Health, Inc.

For another perspective on the politics of food and class check out these articles from Grist, a blog about environmental issues:

Using Food as a Tool for Development, not Extraction

Food and Class


[1] Bureau of Labor Statistics
[2] The LA Progressive
[3] United Farm Workers
[4] National Center for Farm Worker Health, Inc.
[5] Ballotpedia

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