Pesticides and Migrant Workers


Jesus Torres recalled a time when he was working in a cornfield in the morning with a 13-year-old youth and the teen drank dew out of a corn tassel. Torres shuddered to think of how drinking the poisoned dew could have affected the youth’s health. Torres spoke to about 20-25 people attending the Pesticides and Migrant Workers workshop October 22 at the Environmental Justice Advocates of Minnesota Founders’ Day event. Primarily concerned with the effects pesticides on people, especially the workers who directly contact with them, the workshop also examined what people can do to resist harmful practices, and create alternatives to big agribusiness and its chemical-intensive farming.

Chela Vasquez and Jesus Torres from Centro Campesino described migrant workers’ exposure to pesticides, reporting that workers experience rashes and difficulty breathing after detasseling corn. Workers often fish and swim in contaminated watersheds and channels. Companies do not give workers water to wash with, so they have to eat with contaminated hands. The employment of children in chemical-intensive fields poses particularly serious dangers to their development.

Vasquez and Torres said that genetically engineered crops are sprayed more heavily because they are more resistant to chemicals. Centro Campesino fought successfully in southern Minnesota to abolish companies’ policies of spraying fields while people were working in them. Companies’ spraying practices still expose workers and their families to chemicals because there often is no buffer zone between sprayed fields and the camps where workers live.

The effects of many chemicals on migrant workers are unknown because there has not been research done on the subject. Vasquez and Torres advocated raising funds and utilizing university resources to engage in community-based research to study the extent and effects of the health hazards to workers. They said that not notifying the workers of the risk involved with contact with the pesticides was a violation of workers’ rights, and advocated a workers’ right to know bill, and enforcement of existing worker protections such as laws penalizing companies that violate work contracts.

Consumers are also put at risk by chemicals such as atrazine because the chemicals are applied to the foods they eat. Atrazine, which is applied to boost corn yields is the most widely used weed killer. Atrazine is manufactured by Syngenta, which is based in Basel, Switzerland, where the chemical is banned. It is an endocrine disrupter, which causes developmental disorders, reproductive problems and suppresses the immune system, leaving the body vulnerable to illness. Tyrone Hayes of the University of California, Berkeley, was the keynote speaker at last year’s Founders’ Day where he described atrazine as a “smoking gun” and explained his research that linked it to an increasing number of hermaphrodite and deformed frogs and their subsequent population slump.

Participants expressed the need to enforce existing environmental regulations and to create new protections. Minnesota state representative Keith Ellison promoted his current bill pushing for a ten-year study about the effects of pesticides. He had proposed three versions of a bill to ban atrazine. They were all defeated because farmers in Minnesota are very committed to keeping the chemical.

The consumer action proposed by workshop participants revolved around resisting harmful agricultural practices and driving alternatives, such as personal and community gardens, urban gardening, a local fair trade network, and consumer fair trade purchasing to promote fair treatment of the workers and environmentally sustainable production.