Migrant Farmworker Conditions Unhealthy

April 26, 2013

From the upcoming issue of Food, Nutrition & Science, facilities for farmworkers are not living up to standards. According to a recent study, the health of those responsible for our food is at stake.

From the upcoming issue of Food, Nutrition & Science. 

Cooking and eating facilities for migrant farmworkers are not complying with health regulations in many camps, according to a recent study from Wake Forest School of Medicine and published in the American Journal of Public Health. These subpar conditions represent substantial threats to the health and safety of migrant workers in this country.

The estimated 700,000 to 1.4 million migrant workers working in the U.S. are critical to our agricultural production. Some establish a temporary home to harvest crops, while others follow the crops in a traditional migrant stream, moving from place to place. Though migrant housing facilities vary, many are constructed to host groups instead of individual families. Crowding is known to be a problem in this scenario, and sanitary conditions can suffer.

Dr. Sara A. Quandt, study author, says that her group has been studying farmworker health since 1996. She points out that for farmworkers, housing is a huge part of their job, and housing can either be a benefit or a hazard. In their observations, researchers found a wide variety of housing, some good and some bad, and they analyzed the housing conditions based on federal guidelines.

“It is an irony that the people who are responsible for our food may not have the facilities to actually consume it,” says Dr. Quandt. “I worry about the food safety issue. In some locations, the refrigerators were too warm, the water was contaminated, and this puts workers at risk for foodborne and waterborne diseases. There could be outbreaks, and they might not get reported. The other complication it is that the symptoms of food poisoning are not that different from those of green tobacco sickness or heat exhaustion, and so it’s often hard to know which ailment the workers are suffering from.”

In this study, researchers collected data from 182 farmworker camps in eastern North Carolina during the 2010 agricultural season. Almost one third (29.7%) of the camps consisted of barracks. The mean age of workers interviewed was 32.8. Most of the workers (95.2%) were from Mexico, and about a third (35%) of them were in their third season or less of work in U.S. agriculture.

Researchers observed violations of eight regulations in at least 10% of the camps, including improper refrigerator temperature (65.5%), cockroach infestation (45.9%), contaminated water (34.4%) and unsanitary conditions (21.2%). Rodent infestation (28.9%), improper flooring (25.8%) and holes or leaks in the walls (12.1%) were also found. On the positive side, most of the facilities had adequate hot and cold water, and the required kitchen appliances.

In a job where work capacity is directly related to wages, as is the case of migrant farming (more than 10% of workers are paid piece-rate, by the bucket of produce picked), is it vitally important for workers to maintain health. But compromised farmworker housing is a potential source of exposures to a number of things that can threaten worker health – like inadequate cooking and eating facilities. And sometimes, these issues just get overlooked.

“There was a debate in North Carolina a couple years ago about what constitutes a bed for every worker. Should a bed have mattress and a clean cover? Or could a bed be just a frame with no mattress? When you hear that this was something that was actually being debated, then you know what you are up against when working to improve farmworker conditions,” says Quandt.

Quandt says that many producers in this country are really being squeezed financially, leaving them with very little elasticity except for labor – which can result in compromised conditions, like housing. Researchers did find, however, that guest workers with H2A visas lived in better conditions than other types of migrant workers (North Carolina has the highest number of H2A visa holders of any state in the country). The housing of farmers who host workers with H2A visas must be inspected prior to occupancy, and that helps improve conditions somewhat. Unfortunately, this still leaves room for bad conditions to emerge mid-season, when inspections are no longer taking place.

“We have laws in this country developed to protect the health and safety of workers. We don’t put children in factories anymore and we don’t lock the doors in case there is a fire. One set of these laws is designed to protect migrant and seasonal workers because their work is very different from other laborers. We have housing regulations to protect their health, and if we are not enforcing those regulations then we are not upholding the law or providing the standards of living that they should enjoy,” says Quandt. 

She adds, “If our kitchens looked like some we saw, someone would call the health department.”

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