Farmworkers need protection from pesticides, sexual assault


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The recent reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act offers enhanced protections that can help women farmworkers.

The recent reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act offers enhanced protections that can help women farmworkers.


It’s usually a stinging sensation in my nose.

That feeling is a telltale sign, when I go to plant nurseries to speak with farmworkers around Florida, that chemicals have been used.

I am extremely sensitive because, for nine years, I also worked in the nurseries. Where I worked specialized in orchids. After receiving the seedlings, my job was to care for the plants, growing them before they were sent to supermarkets and other places for sale.

While working there, I frequently was exposed to pesticides.

One of my duties was to take inventory of the plants. I would enter the nursery right after workers finished spraying chemicals. I was never warned that it could be dangerous to my health. One time, I got extremely sick. Within an hour of entering the nursery, my feet went numb. I felt lightheaded and dizzy.

Thinking about my time as a farmworker, I don’t know what is worse — that I regularly was exposed to toxic chemicals or that I didn’t know my rights.

Neither I nor my coworkers were given personal protective equipment, such as masks or special boots. We didn’t even think to ask for those things. Also, the time I fell seriously ill, my boss told me that it was not because of the pesticides. Still, I knew that I had been poisoned.

My coworkers, who also had been exposed, had the same reactions. Yet, I didn’t know that there were government agencies I could have contacted, such as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), which is mandated to ensure safe and healthy workplace conditions.

I turned to groups in the area. Specifically, I became involved in Alianza Nacional de Campesinas, a coalition of 15 groups that work with more than 700,000 farmworker women and their families in 20 states.

We have been especially active this last week of March, during Farmworker Awareness Week. Last week, Alianza launched Campesinas Rising, not just to raise awareness to the struggles of farmworkers — particularly women — but also to push policymakers to make real changes.

For instance, we need the US Environmental Protection Agency and OSHA to receive more funding so that they can enforce existing laws regarding the use of harmful pesticides. Conducting spot inspections would prevent employers from making superficial improvements to their work environments to pass inspection on one day, just to continue to force workers into inhumane conditions for the rest of the year. Chemicals also need to be properly labeled so that farmworkers know the identity and hazards of what they may be exposed to.

Women farmworkers also suffer from gender-based violence. From testimonies that our organization has collected, an estimated nine out of every 10 women have experienced some form of sexual assault. The PBS documentary, “Rape in the Fields,” documents such cases, detailing how men repeatedly abuse their power without consequence.

Our organization strongly supported the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). This critical piece of legislation provides resources for police to investigate crimes and allows women to hold accountable authorities that do not comply with their duties to punish perpetrators of crimes against women.

We applaud President Biden signing the reauthorization of VAWA into law on March 16, recognizing its importance as a necessary step to protect women farmworkers. The 2022 reauthorized VAWA expands protections for survivors in a number of ways, including directing resources to “culturally specific” programs, requiring trauma-informed training for law enforcement and broadening access to legal services.

Another of our legislative priorities is the “Protect Our Workers from Exploitation and Retaliation Act.” If the bill becomes law, the POWER Act would allow workers who experience harassment at work to apply for asylum. The legislation would also prohibit employers from using a worker’s immigration status as a way to threaten, exploit or subjugate them. This bill is key. According to the US Department of Agriculture, in 2020, about 50% of our nation’s farmworkers were undocumented.

There’s an ugly reality behind the orchid’s beauty. That truth, which contains gender-based violence and pesticide poisoning, is something that farmworker women especially understand.

With Campesinas Rising, we are not asking for people to boycott orchids or certain fruits or vegetables that require farmworkers to harvest or pick. What we ask is for people to be aware of our reality and join us in making our food system better.

Elvira Carvajal is lead organizer Alianza Nacional de Campesinas.


This story was originally published March 30, 2022 6:50 PM.


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