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Lack of Protections for Undocumented Workers Puts Public Health, Food System at Risk

CLF Report Calls for Worker Health-Centered Approach to Immigration Reforms

Apr 03, 2017

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United States immigration reform efforts should address serious health risks faced by undocumented agricultural workers, according to a new report released today by the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future (CLF) in the Bloomberg School of Public Health’s Department of Environmental Health and Engineering. Researchers argue that the current systemic lack of protections for undocumented workers threatens both public health and national food security.

According to the report, health risks linked to agricultural work include pesticide exposure, injuries, poor air quality, contact with animal waste, exposure to antibiotic resistant bacteria, and exposure to novel strains of the flu virus. Additional factors like frequent migration, poor housing conditions, lack of access to healthcare, and fear of job loss or deportation make undocumented immigrants and their families especially vulnerable.

“The significant mental and physical health risks undocumented agricultural workers face demand urgent attention and action,” said Claire Fitch, lead author of the report and Program Manager of CLF’s Food System Policy Program. “Until workers have authorization to work in the U.S. and other legal protections such as the right to organize, wages and working conditions will remain depressed for all U.S. agricultural workers.”

According to the report, protecting the health and safety of agricultural workers is critically important for the U.S. food system, which relies heavily on the work of undocumented immigrants. An estimated 50-75 percent of the nation’s two million farmworkers are undocumented. Hundreds of thousands more undocumented workers are employed in slaughter plants and food-processing facilities. Groups like the American Farm Bureau Federation increasingly acknowledge that the impermanent, underrepresented, and at-risk agricultural workforce makes the industry susceptible to worker shortages, which cost American farms more than $300 million in 2010.

Researchers argue that comprehensive immigration reform is needed to protect workers, the U.S. food system, and public health. Key steps that policymakers can take toward this goal include:

  • Extending eligibility for health insurance benefits for workers and their families
  • Removing exemptions for agricultural workers and increasing minimum wage in the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA)
  • Mandating that agricultural employers provide full workers’ compensation coverage
  • Removing the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) exemption for the number of employees required for enforcement and inspection
  • Ensuring that agricultural workers and their families have access to safe, affordable housing
  • Replacing the H-2A visa with a variation of the Blue Card program
  • Expanding and increasing funding for the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and OSHA
  • Strengthening enforcement of human trafficking violations and sexual harassment in agriculture
  • Strengthening protections for workers who report hazards, exposures, and health conditions, and protecting workers’ right to organize

“Vilifying political rhetoric and enforcement actions that aim to punish undocumented immigrants fail to confront Americans’ reliance on these workers for the food they eat,” said Bob Martin, co-author of the report and director of CLF’s Food System Policy Program. “We need to change the debate and discuss immigration reform in a way that acknowledges these workers’ contributions to our food system, prioritizes occupational health and safety, and empowers workers to demand fair and safe working conditions.”

Public Health, Immigration Reform and Food System Change” was written by Claire Fitch, Carolyn Hricko, and Robert Martin.