Essentially Heroic Women
The next time that you eat fruits or vegetables, thank the campesinas whose back-breaking labor under inhumane conditions bring them to your table. Extreme heat, pesticide exposure, sexual abuse and vulnerability to COVID-19 contribute for these women’s job to be one of the country’s riskiest.
When it comes to the grave dangers of excessive heat, cattle enjoy more protection than campesinas. Between 1992 and 2017, high temperatures caused the deaths of 815 workers and gravely sickened 70,000. The ones who are most impacted by this danger are farm workers because of their exhausting toiling under the hot sun, without access to cool water, shady spaces or mandatory breaks.
“The Centers for Disease Control recommended in 1972 that the federal government established a heat stress standard for workers,” says María de Luna, director of Policy and Advocacy at the National Alliance of Campesinas (NAC). “But nothing has been done in almost 50 years. What we do have is a federal heat standard to protect cattle, but not for farm workers.”
The next time that you eat fruits or vegetables, thank the campesinas whose back-breaking labor under inhumane conditions bring them to your table.
The climate crisis makes this situation even worse. High temperatures and dehydration can trigger respiratory, brain and cardiovascular illnesses, heat stroke and death.
These heroic campesinas also risk their good health by being exposed to pesticides of great toxicity. According to NAC, each year, 1.1 million pounds of pesticides and herbicides are sprayed on the country’s fields, which causes some 20,000 poisoning cases. This exposure can trigger cancer, infertility and neurological disorders.
“Pesticide exposure causes farmworkers to suffer more chemical-related injuries and illnesses than any other workforce in the nation,” says Milly Treviño-Sauceda, executive director of NAC. “In California, for instance, there are clusters of campesina communities whose children have special medical needs because of their mothers’ pesticide exposure.”
You’ve got to admire the courage and generosity of these women by confronting yet another terrible danger. According to a study by the University of California, Santa Cruz UCSC), up to 80 percent of them have suffered some form of sexual abuse.
“In a report we conducted among 60 of our members, we found that nine out of ten had suffered sexual abuses in the fields or in their own homes,” says Treviño-Sauceda. “This is something perverse. It’s very rare for any agricultural company not to have had instances of sexual abuse. Since they are isolated in the fields, it’s very easy for them to be raped or violated”.
The UCSC study also found that less than 7 percent of the cases of sexual abuse are reported, in part because the vast majority of campesinas lack legal immigration status and that up to 97 percent of them suffer reprisals from their abusers or employers.
Moreover, during the pandemic, campesinas are considered essential workers, yet all too often that distinction turns out to be just a phrase.
“Very many companies did not take the necessary precautions to avoid contagions and because many of the campesinas lack health insurance, they had no option but to go to work sick,” Treviño-Sauceda adds.
The consequences have been terrible. A Purdue University study found that some 9,100 farm workers have died of COVID-19 out of 554,000 cases.
“Enough!”, clamor Treviño-Sauceda and the 700,000 campesinas her organization represents and demand that solutions must be taken to put an end to these abuses, such as the passing or reauthorization of the Asunción Valdivia Heat Illness and Fatality Prevention Act, the Protect America’s Children from Toxic Pesticides Act, the Violence Against Women Act and the Citizenship for Essential Workers Act.
Society owes it to these women for being essentially heroic.
Javier Sierra is a columnist with the Sierra Club. @javier_SC
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