Undocumented workers also need protection from the climate

Picture for an article titled Undocumented Workers Also Need Climate Protection

Illustration: Angelica Alzona

Ana Martinez has been working on a farm in Florida for almost two decades. Her job is to cut pieces of shrubs that she will use as a filling for bouquets of flowers. One Monday last July, she knew something was wrong because she had a headache at work.

“I never have a headache, but that morning I started getting one, and my knees were weak and I wanted to vomit,” Martinez said.

The problem was the heat. In summer, temperatures in Florida often reach three-digit numbers, especially in the hot sun. Martinez, who hails from western Mexico, works in the same fields as before 200,000 migrant farmers work in the hot Sunshine State sun. But she is among countless undocumented workers who desperately need protection from the increasing heat caused by climate change.

Last month, The Biden administration announced a list of long-overdue protections for workers from extreme heat – a move praised by labor and climate advocates. Most of the announcement was a promise by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to issue a new rule to ensure workers are protected from extreme heat.

The statement specifically mentions agricultural workers who need protection, because they are some of them the most vulnerable workers to diseases caused by heat due to long time outside. Federal data from 2008 showed that farmers did 20 times they are more likely to die from heat-related illnesses than the average American worker. Between 1992 and 2017 more than 800 farmers died from heat exposure, while more than 70,000 were seriously injured.

Florida is particularly affected. State has the largest increase in hospitalizations in the CDC’s Environmental Public Health Monitoring Program between 1979 and 2013. 85% of agricultural workers in the state they reported at least one symptom of heat illness, and 40% reported three or more.

But the measures will not be enough to protect workers like Martinez, because as 50% of the farm workforce, she is undocumented. Other industries that involve hard outdoor work, such as construction and landscaping, also rely heavily on undocumented workers; an assessment by the Center for American Progress found that almost 1 in 5 landscaping workers and construction workers were undocumented.

Martinez, who asked us to change her name to protect her identity, said she was lucky enough to have a relatively caring manager who provides water for the workers and encourages them to take breaks. But other supervisors are more violent and encourage workers to work during the heat. Many also fear that leaving due to illness could jeopardize their future job prospects.

“Workers are afraid of leaving in such a situation because they think, what if [the manager] it takes away their jobs or does not give them jobs tomorrow or another day, ”Martinez said.

On the farm where Martinez works, workers are also paid not by the hour or the day, but by the piece of stuffing they take from the bushes – “38 cents per pile”, she said. Some choose to work even when they feel sick because they need money.

“I am one of those people who always argue [with other farmworkers] and tells them, ‘your life is more important than making more clusters,’ she said.

If farms like this were required by federal law to provide regular access to shade and water on hot days, it could allow workers to do their jobs without risking their lives.

“Undocumented workers are at great risk if they try to either complain to their employer or go to OSHA,” said Juley Fulcher, an advocate for worker health and safety at the nonprofit Public Citizen. “They could lose their jobs, if their families work there, their families may lose their jobs. They could be blacklisted to get a job anywhere else. ”

2020. a group of Democratic MPs in both houses of Congress introduced Law on the Prevention of Heat Diseases and Deaths Asunción Valdivia. The bill is named after Asuncion Valdivia, a farm worker who tragically died in California in 2004 after picking grapes in the three-digit heat for 10 hours. The measure would require all employers to provide shade, water and breaks for all workers, and the bill was not even scheduled to be voted on.

OSHA says its new rule will focus on workplace interventions and inspections – including surprise inspections – for all days when the heat index exceeds 80 degrees Fahrenheit (27 degrees Celsius). Fulcher said social groups, such as the Florida Farmers’ Association – with which Martinez works – are often able to serve as a “mediator” who can inform authorities when an unannounced inspection could be helpful.

“They are able to draw OSHA’s attention to the problem without endangering any individual worker,” she said.

Martinez said bigger changes are needed than a few sudden inspections and water to protect undocumented workers. Increasing farmers’ salaries and changing payment models are at the top of her list. Since she and many other farmers are paid as much as they harvest, they are discouraged from taking breaks for water or shade because that would reduce their salaries. Payment per piece also allows workers to be paid less than the minimum wage. Between 2015 and 2016, annual income for families of farm workers they did not often exceed $ 24,500, meaning that many lived below the poverty line.

“I think [they should] increase salaries for the work we do, ”she said.

In the end, she also said that the path to citizenship is necessary. This could help ensure that workers have all the protection that OSHA provides. Workers in other fields, including disaster recovery, faced similar dangerous work situations. Protection and citizenship are two ways to ensure safer conditions.

According to a study published last year, the number of days with precarious working conditions in counties where agriculture is the main part of the economy will increase from 21 per season to 39 per season by 2055. Without urgent measures to curb greenhouse gas emissions, the number of precarious days could triple by the end of the century. It is time to establish better protection of the agricultural workforce as the climate crisis will only exacerbate the extreme heat.

“The terrible effects of the heat last summer showed us that,” Fulcher said.

Jody Serano gave translations for this story.

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Naveen Kumar

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