SARASOTA/MANATEE FARMWORKER SUPPORTERS
4517 Ascot Circle South, Sarasota, Florida 34235
Sarasota/Manatee Farmworker Supporters is a branch of the National Farmworker Ministry
SEPTEMBER 2005 NEWSLETTER
FIFTH ISSUE FORUM OF 2005:
THE STRUGGLES OF FARMWORKER WOMEN
SATURDAY, OCTOBER 1, 2005 – 2:00 to 4:00 P.M.
SELBY PUBLIC LIBRARY, 1331 First Street, Sarasota
“THE GREEN MOTEL”
That’s what some women farmworkers call the fields and orchards in which they face persistent sexual assaults. As if backbreaking work, low wages and pesticide poisoning weren’t enough…
--- Ms. Magazine, Summer 2005. (Available at www.smfws.com)
In Florida, farmworker women are often discriminated against in pay and job assignments. All too often, they are sexually harassed at their jobs, many times being sexually assaulted by their supervisors. A large percentage of Florida’s estimated 40,000 female farmworkers are employed in plant nurseries or ferneries, where they are routinely exposed to highly toxic pesticides. Many of these women are also victims of domestic violence in their homes.
The October forum will be moderated by Luz Corcuera, president of the Latino Community Network and program director for Healthy Start Coalition of Manatee County, and attorney Monica Ramirez, one of the experts quoted in the Ms. Magazine article. At the forum, several farmworker women who will offer their own personal accounts of working in an industry where discrimination runs rampant.
.ANNUAL CESAR CHAVEZ MEMORIAL DINNER
Monday, November 7, 2005, 6:00 P.M.
Golden Apple Dinner Theater, 25 N. Pineapple Avenue, Sarasota
The Sarasota Manatee Farm Worker Supporters will hold their annual Cesar Chavez Memorial Dinner on Monday, November 7. The event will feature a buffet dinner and the presentation of awards to three individuals for exceptional service to Florida farmworkers. There will be live musical entertainment. The keynote speaker for the dinner will be Tirso Moreno, general coordinator of the Farmworker Association of Florida, the largest farmworker membership organization in the state. Tirsoi, a former farmworker himself, has been a leader at the state and national level in efforts to improve farmworkers’ living and working conditions.
Tickets - $30; $18 for farmworkers, students and children
Tickets available at the October 1, 2005 forum or contact:
Pat Liebert (941) 379-0317 or
Marvin Mills (941) 351-8726
STAY UP TO DATE ON ISSUES AND NEWS AFFECTING AMERICA’S FARMWORKERS
For breaking news on farmworkers and their struggle, go to the Sarasota/Manatee Farm Worker Supporters webpage. Updated daily, the web page contains the nation’s most complete listing of news items relating to farmworkers (plus several years of archives!)
PALM BEACH POST
July 31, 2005
Alarm grows over pesticide threat in nurseries
Workers may be more at risk than those in the fields because of closer confines, advocates say.
HOMESTEAD — Two and a half years ago, nursery worker Mario Chavez was as good as dead.
Chavez, 53, a Mexican migrant who was employed by Costa Nursery Farms in Miami, says in November 2002 he handled Christmas trees being prepared for shipping.
"For many days, I moved those trees out of trucks and to another area at the nursery," he says. "The trees had been sprayed with a chemical, and it would drip over me all day."
The chemical was chlorpyrifos, an ingredient in insecticides that in high doses can damage enzymes vital to the nervous system. Excessive exposure may cause seizures and even death, according to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency warnings.
A complaint later filed with state agricultural inspectors stated that Chavez "was given no protective equipment (such as gloves or mask) to use when handling these trees."
"I would go to the bathroom and vomit from the smell," Chavez recalls. "I would be sick at night and my face became swollen." He eventually could not work and, according to his attorney and his relatives, he finally suffered a stroke and fell into a coma for 26 days at Miami's Jackson Memorial Hospital.
"I was dead," says Chavez, now disabled. "If I am here talking today, it is only because God saved me."
The company eventually was found in violation of various federal safety regulations and received a relatively modest fine, according to Chavez's attorneys. His case is one of the most serious pesticide-related illnesses reported in Florida in recent years, but far from the only one.
Advocates and attorneys for agricultural workers say the use of pesticides in nurseries may now be an even more acute problem than spraying those chemicals in more extensive vegetable fields and orange groves of Florida.
Earlier this year, the Farmworker Association of Florida presented 123 complaints to the state involving health issues. According to Francisco Garza, the Homestead representative of that organization, the majority of complaints were found at nurseries, not open farm fields, and most of the concerns involved workers who said they were exposed to dangerous pesticides.
According to an annual report filed by the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, nurseries have a higher rate of violations of federal pesticide regulations than other agricultural sites. In the year ending September 2004, 46 percent of nurseries inspected were found in violation of one or more pesticide law, as compared to 33 percent of Florida fruit and vegetable farms.
The violations were often procedural, such as failure to display proper information about pesticides, or failure to train workers in pesticide use. But some violations are more serious.
"You have, potentially, a more dangerous situation because the nursery workers are often in enclosed spaces, like greenhouses," says attorney Monica Ramirez of the Migrant Farmworker Justice Project of Lake Worth. "If pesticides are sprayed, or if workers go into those spaces soon after they have been sprayed, they are trapped in there with the pesticides. They may be at greater risk than they are in open fields."
Industry surpasses citrus
In Florida, the number of those nurseries and the activity in them is increasing rapidly. According to state figures, the nursery industry is now the largest segment of Florida's agricultural economy, with sales of more than $1.6 billion per year, bypassing citrus.
Jim Spratt, director of environmental policy for the Florida Nursery, Growers and Landscape Association, says Florida is home to 4,161 nurseries, covering 62,000 acres, with a total economic impact of more than $9 billion per year. The industry has grown at a hothouse pace, in part, because of the need to landscape new housing tracts in the state. Crotons, hibiscus, orchids, bromeliads, among others, are being shipped out by the millions.
Florida nurseries employ at least 35,000 people, about 75 percent of them full time, Spratt says. Many of them are Latin Americans. Nurseries are attractive workplaces for new immigrants because they offer year-round employment that allows young agricultural families to live without traveling from state to state.
But they may be riskier. Federal Worker Protection Standards allow nurseries, in certain circumstances, to spray pesticides much closer to workers than in open fields — as close as 25 feet away. Some workers say not even that buffer zone is honored.
"We find a lot of cases of workers who are too close to spraying when it goes on, or who are working with plants soon after they have been sprayed and before those chemicals even dry, which is very dangerous," says Garza of the Farmworker Association. "We hear it all the time."
Garza says he has also found that untrained workers often do the pesticide spraying on nursery grounds, and some nurseries have workers living in ramshackle trailers right on the property, without housing permits.
"They are drinking and bathing in well water that may be tainted with pesticides, and they are living with those pesticides 24 hours per day," says Garza.
In some cases, contact with those chemicals cause easily observable problems. A 2003 University of Florida study that surveyed hundreds of people found that 31 percent of nursery workers and 79 percent of fernery workers — who also work in enclosed spaces — complained of skin rashes that they attributed to pesticides.
But Tirso Moreno, state coordinator for the Farmworker Association of Florida, worries about another, more serious health concern specific to nurseries.
"There is a higher percentage of women employees in the nurseries than in other parts of agriculture," says Moreno. "Women seem to be more vulnerable to chemicals, especially pregnant women and their unborn children. The women know it can be dangerous to do that work when they are pregnant, but they can't afford to stop working. There also seems to be a high number of miscarriages among them, though there has never been a study to see if it is connected to the pesticides."
Birth defects probed
The state is investigating the cases of three children with birth defects, all born within seven weeks of one another, all of whose parents lived in the Florida farming town of Immokalee and picked tomatoes for the same firm, AgMart/Santa Sweets.
Despite those facts, experts say it is very difficult to prove that pesticides have caused a specific birth defect. Many other possible causes exist — genetics, congenital abnormalities or other environmental conditions.
But Antonio and Maria Saucedo of Homestead — originally from Mexico but now U.S. citizens — are convinced that is what happened to their daughter, Alexa. On Sept. 9, 2002, Alexa was born missing the lower portion of her right arm. Medical personnel at Jackson South Hospital said they had no explanation for the defect, the parents say.
"They said those things just happen," said Maria Saucedo, 36.
But after hearing of the Immokalee cases, the Saucedos contacted a personal injury attorney. For at least two years leading up to Alexa's birth, both parents say they were employed at nurseries in Homestead. Maria, in particular, says she was exposed to dangerous pesticides.
"It has to be those chemicals," says Antonio, 47, who has three older children with his wife, all born without birth defects. "It can't be anything else."
But their case illustrates just how complex, uncertain and tragic such issues can be.
The former employer, Andrew Bartha, president of Silver Vase nursery in Homestead, vigorously denies his workplace caused the birth defect.
Bartha is considered a model employer, one of the very few in the nursery business to offer health and pension benefits, as well as free lunch daily for his employees. Bartha also employs a pest management system that involves fewer pesticides than are normally used, he says.
"Without a doubt, there is abuse of labor in the agricultural industry, but there are businesses that are not in that category," he said in defense of his firm.
Still, Maria Saucedo insists she was exposed to dangerous chemicals. "They would use the pesticides after we left work at about 4 p.m. But the next day we would be working right outside the greenhouse, and the fans would go on and blow the chemicals out of the greenhouse and right into the area where we were working. That would be at 9 or 10 o'clock in the morning when it was getting hot."
Some of the chemicals had a 24-hour "reentry interval" specified, she said, which meant under federal law workers could not enter the greenhouse for that period. "But it would blow out and the smell would be very strong all around us," she said.
The company did acknowledge using various toxic pesticides during the time Maria Saucedo worked there, although sparingly. Among them was Avid, an insecticide that has as an active chemical ingredient abamectin, a chemical that in high doses has caused birth defects in lab animals, according to the EPA.
Steve Meyers, an Orlando attorney who has handled many farmworker injury cases over the years, including pesticide violations, emphasized how difficult it was to prove such cases.
"Even if workers wait a week or two to come to you, doing tests, gathering evidence and accounts is difficult," Meyers says. The Saucedo case goes back three years.
Advocates for farmworkers say that is one reason why monitoring of pesticide use and stricter policing of the agriculture and nursery industries by the state are absolutely necessary in Florida.
Spratt says the state nursery organization constantly offers courses on proper pesticide use to nursery owners. But workers, their advocates and attorneys say many nurseries continue to violate pesticide regulations.
And there are too many of them for state agriculture inspectors to adequately monitor. At any one time, only about 20 state employees are doing pesticide inspections at the 4,000-plus nurseries and thousands more farms in Florida. Some nurseries can go years without being inspected.
Advocates also say that nursery workers are often afraid to lodge complaints because they fear retaliation and loss of their jobs.
Nonetheless, Dalix Zuniga, 42, and Guadalupe Ortiz, 36, both of Homestead, along with five other workmates, recently filed complaints against their employer, Nature's Way nursery in Miami, including charges that they were exposed to dangerous pesticides.
The complaint claims that the employees were forced to work in a building very near a storage facility where pesticides are kept. They claim the odor of pesticides fills the building "even when its doors are closed, and is more potent when the fumigators arrive to mix the chemicals."
Unsupervised fumigators, in a hurry to finish their work, sometimes sprayed them directly, the workers said.
"Our clients have complained to their supervisors about headaches that they experience due to this exposure, along with feelings of nausea," attorney Monica Ramirez of the Migrant Farmworker Justice Fund states in her complaint. "However, nothing has been done to fix the problem."
As of last week, five of the seven women had quit the company since the complaint was filed.
"I had worked there for eight years, and suddenly everything I did was wrong," said Zuniga.
Ivonne Alexander, an officer for Nature's Way, denied that laws had been broken at the nursery. She said the case was being investigated by the state Agriculture Department and said she was sure her firm would be exonerated and that her supervisors had acted properly.
But according to the complaint, when the workers expressed their concerns about certain pesticide spraying, a supervisor responded: "The plant is more important than the employees."