Setting a Global Standard for Health and Safety

Strolling down the produce aisles this time of year, we may see pineapples from Central America, strawberries from South America, apples from North America, and oranges from Africa. While AFOP’s member organizations work diligently with people who do field work in the U.S., the reality is that fruits and vegetables ending up in farmworker and non-farmworker grocery carts alike come from the all over. Worldwide, not only in the United States, agriculture remains one of the most hazardous employment sectors for workers. Representing over one third of the world’s labor force, of which women are the large majority, the agricultural sector literally keeps the world alive. With the current global economic system extending its reach at every moment, never has it been more important for strict standards to be set—and enforced—for the health and safety of people working in agriculture.

One institution aims to set these global standards. Established in 1919 and composed of 183 countries, the International Labour Organization was the first specialized agency of the League of Nations, which was preceded by the United Nations in 1945. Concluding a year long process of drafting a revised Code on Practice on Safety and Health in Agriculture, 15 representatives of workers, employers, and governments from around the world met in Geneva two weeks ago to negotiate a finalized ILO document. The representatives voted to pass the Code on Friday, October 29th and the ILO governing body will fully endorse it in March of 2011.  Baldemar Velasquez, co-founder and president of the AFLO CIO union organization, was called upon to represent the farmworkers of North America.

The document clarifies resolutions decided upon with the ILO Safety and Health in Agriculture Convention of 2001 (184) and the subsequent Recommendation (192). While exact details are not yet available, the new draft Code raises awareness of work-related risks in the sector, focuses on prevention of occupational accidents and diseases, encourages cooperation across stakeholders to implement prevention strategies, and “promotes more positive attitudes and behavior” towards occupational health and safety in agriculture.

Returning our gaze to this country as a case study of the health and safety rights of agriculture workers, what does the 2001 Convention actually require? How are the United States and Puerto Rico meeting these global standards? And in what ways are they overlooking them?

The Worker Protection Standard of the United States emphasizes the right of the worker to avoid direct contact with pesticide spray. The effects of pesticide exposure include lasting health damage (see “Carlitos”). Parallel to this, Article 8 of the ILO Convention asserts workers in agriculture have the right to:

“…remove themselves from danger resulting from their work activity when they have reasonable justification to believe there is an imminent and serious risk to their safety and health and so inform their supervisor immediately. They shall not be placed at any disadvantage as a result of these actions.”

While this standard supposedly protects against recrimination, the national system of enforcement is carried out by those interested in agricultural production, not worker protection.

Article 21 requires workers to have an insurance or social security backing for fatal and non-fatal occupational injuries and diseases, which we know is not the case for many migrant and seasonal farmworkers. As a final example, perhaps the most blatant gap between U.S. compliance and the ILO Convention is found in Article 16, stating that youth in hazardous agricultural work must be at least 18 years old. The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 lowers the age to 16 for the United States.

Taking into account the sometimes absent or merely unenforced national laws of each country, ideally guided by the ILO Convention protecting agricultural workers’ health and safety, a mere glance at these documents illustrates the fissures between what is agreed upon and what is practiced. The increasing influence of corporations in the agricultural sector, as evident in CropLife’s invitation to the finalization of the document, causes further worry. Can a compromise be found between entities that consider food a human right and those that consider food—and the people who harvest it—a mere commodity? If such a compromise is reached, who will continue to labor? And who will benefit?

The United States can be held further accountable in its agriculture health and safety practices if it ratifies the 2001 Convention, as well as the newest code adopted at the summit in Geneva. Baldemar Velasquez’ presence places extra importance on the level of accountability for this country, the same level it so often encourages for other countries. A comprehensive resource from the International Union of Food workers provides action steps on how to campaign for a country’s ratification of Convention 184 on safety and health in agriculture.  While the food market is clearly international, food justice starts at home.

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