Posted by: kbvale | February 11, 2009

Adding farmworker housing standards to the list of “Things That Matter”

Submitted by Suanne Klahorst, Writer, John Muir Institute of the Environment

Prospective students are invited to come to UC Davis to “Discover What Matters.” As a writer on campus, I continually have the privilege of sharing these discoveries as well. In May 2007 I wrote a press release for a policy paper on farmworker housing that was funded by the John Muir Institute’s Environmental Infrastructure Policy Papers Grant Program. Unfortunately, the paper’s publication didn’t attract a lot of media attention. Nor did the media pay much attention when the authors collaborated with their peers on a related draft report that became the centerpiece of a national, invitation-only, “Rural Justice Forum” in Los Angeles in October 2008. The forum was co-sponsored by The California Endowment and California Rural Legal Assistance, Marysville.

The following interview from December 2008 represents an untold story of an academic publication that contributed to informed policymaking, in this case at the national level. The paper’s authors are: Don Villarejo, Ph.D., a farm labor policy consultant in Davis and a former farmworker; and Marc Schenker, M.D., M.P.H; chair of Epidemiology and Preventive Medicine at the School of Medicine; also director of two centers, Agricultural Health & Safety Center and Center for Occupational and Environmental Health. I asked my questions as a representative from the funding sponsor. The real news here is that academic publications have threads of influence that can be sometimes be followed to a change in policy, but it takes dedicated collaborations, funding and inspiration to make that happen. I hope your discovery of our academic dedication to policymaking is as inspiring as mine.

John Muir Institute: How did your policy paper contribute to informing policy and practice for farmworker health and housing?

Villarejo: Prior to the Rural Justice Forum, our May 2007 paper had already contributed to national policy discourse. A consortium of farm labor advocates, including California Rural Legal Assistance, cited our 2007 paper in formal comments objecting to changes to the Federal H-2A farm labor guest worker program regulations. The regulations were proposing the removal the long-standing requirement that employers provide housing that met strict Federal standards for non-immigrant guest workers employed in agriculture. Instead, the regulations put forward by the Department of Labor would allow employers to issue a modest monthly housing voucher (about $300) that could be presented to landlords in lieu of rent, and ultimately be reimbursed by the employer. The advocates pointed out that since an already inadequate housing supply for workers would not be likely to increase, this policy would force workers to double up, thereby creating even more crowded conditions and increasing the risk to public health.

Schenker: Too often the discussion of farmworker housing ignores the issue of housing quality and health. Our policy paper attempted to increase attention to the health-related implications of different housing options for farmworkers. This effort is important to researchers attempting to understand the determinants of health in this population, and to public health practitioners and health policy advocates concerned with implementing effective regulations.

John Muir Institute: What new issues or research gaps were identified at the forum?

Villarejo: Conference proceedings could find no peer-reviewed literature that simultaneously measures both household exposures to health risks and the health status of all resident farmworkers and their family members. Thus, reports of associations between risks and illness are difficult to prove. There are only a few documented cases of substandard housing causing disease, one I am aware of is a link between Parkinson’s disease and autism and exposure to pesticide spraying. A troubling aspect of research efforts is that people in substandard housing tend to move more frequently and their housing quality continually changes, making this a very difficult research problem to study. An example of recent changes to the status of their housing situation was identified recently by Juan Vicente Palerm, professor of anthropology, UC Santa Barbara. Recent sub-prime housing foreclosures in low-income agricultural communities in the Central Valley caused a considerable number of farmworker families to lose their homes and move into dwellings shared with other families, creating even more severe overcrowding.

Schenker: There is a substantial research literature on housing quality and health, but essentially none of it focuses on the housing conditions of farmworkers. Studies done in Scandinavia or even urban studies in the U.S. have limited usefulness to understanding the conditions and associated health effects among farmworkers living in rural areas of the U.S. Most importantly, effective public health policies require solid basic research to identify the problems and then to evaluate the effectiveness of interventions.

John Muir Institute: Your paper also resulted in an invitation to provide a book chapter for an upcoming book in press. What outcomes have there been as a result of taking California farm labor housing issues to national forums?

Villarejo: The “Rural Justice Forum” will be expanded soon into a National Symposium on Farm Labor Housing and Health. We have several goals. One is to enlarge the body of basic research on adverse health outcomes that are associated with the conditions in which a great many farmworkers now live. All but a handful of published research on housing conditions and health has been based on studies in urban areas, often high-density neighborhoods in major cities. Housing and living conditions are very different in small, isolated rural communities that are surrounded by agricultural fields where fertilizers and agricultural chemicals saturate the environment. On-farm labor camps present another set of risks, as was apparent a couple of years ago when a young child and father died in a manure pit on the dairy farm where the father was employed.

Another goal is to raise the profile of this problem: a great many farm laborers live in horrific conditions. Is that something that those of who are concerned about the environment and our food supply are willing to tolerate? Already, some funding sources have expressed interest in the new draft paper. We intend to initiate a national research symposium on the adverse health conditions faced by many farm laborers in their places of residence. Farm labor advocates told the conference that research on this topic is sorely needed and would be of great value in policy discourse. It appears that “rural” is being lost in policy debates on addressing the national housing debacle.

Schenker: It has been said, “What you count, counts.” That is, if nobody is focusing a light on this problem, then it is not seen and recognized to be a problem. We hope that our policy paper will call attention to this issue, and ultimately result in appropriate research and public health policies to correct an unacceptable situation.

John Muir Institute: What would be most desirable outcomes of these studies and what would the public stand to gain?

Villarejo: The most desirable outcome would be substantially improved housing conditions for farmworkers, a great many of whom simply can’t afford the housing options available to most other workers in America. I always find a very positive response among the wide range of groups that invite me speak to them about this problem, whether it’s immigration policy or sustainable agriculture. Many say they were unaware or had never thought much about these issues.

Second, it is apparent from both the 2007 paper and the new report that we have only very limited knowledge about the health status of farm laborers in the U.S., let alone the factors that contribute to adverse health outcomes. We simply don’t know much about the relative contributions of workplace, environmental, housing and personal behavior risks to health. Clearly, poverty is central.

Schenker: The first desirable outcome would be increased attention to the problem that exists, followed by multipronged approaches to improving housing conditions for farmworkers. We strongly believe that this is an appropriate outcome for public health reasons, and for social justice.

John Muir Institute: How do you measure success in your field?

Villarejo: The best indicator is what workers themselves say about their lives and their health. We have a saying, “if you want to know where the shoe pinches, ask the person who wears it.” I especially enjoy learning from practitioners, such as those who are active in the Migrant Clinicians Network, and from labor leaders and advocates. I was invited to Cornell University 18 months ago to present to a symposium on farm labor health, and to lead a class in Latin American Studies. On the first day of my visit I went to a migrant clinic and talked with some dedicated practitioners. I participated in a meeting of local farmworkers from Guatemala, staff members of a local service agency, and a priest sent from Mexico to tend to their spiritual needs. It was an amazing day and the experience of learning from the local workers fully energized me to speak with commitment and passion on campus the following day.

Schenker: There are many public health measures of health that can be utilized. For starters, however, these measures need to include immigrant rural populations such as farmworkers and not focus on urban, often English-speaking, populations. Outcome measures range from simple assessments of self-perceived health status to actual measures of health outcomes.

John Muir Institute: Is there apathy among the majority of the eating public in regard to farmworker health and safety? How do you cope with this personally as you work to improve the situation?

Villarejo: I wouldn’t say there is apathy, as much as there is simply ignorance. There is a great deal of recent interest in food quality and nutrition, especially among young people. Growing up on the South Side of Chicago, in Hyde Park, our basic food groups were sugar, salt, caffeine and grease. That diet is now gone, along with canned fruit in heavy syrup and Crisco. Fresh vegetables are widely available today, which makes it easier to speak with folks about the conditions under which they are produced.

I have been called a “mindless optimist,” which evidently keeps me pushing forward and reaching out beyond the comfortable framework of the community in which I happen to live. I spent five days in rural Nevada in October and November, knocking on doors and talking with folks because I thought the outcome of the Presidential election was so vitally important. While there, I met wonderful people who live in Gardnerville and Minden, who were likewise optimistic about the possibility of change. We won Nevada, because thousands of us chose to volunteer. Experiences like that keep me going forward.

Schenker: This is a very interesting and complex question. At one level, I think that the American people are very compassionate and generous. This can be seen after natural disasters such as hurricane Katrina. On the other hand, people can be blind to needs that exist in their midst, especially those that are on-going and not dramatic disasters. I am also an optimist that people will help those in need when they are aware of the situation, and the associated injustice.

John Muir Institute: Having spent your career in this field, how would you compare farmworker housing now with housing you observed personally or studied in the past?

Villarejo: At seven years old, I lived and worked on a farm for several months. The farmer and his family didn’t have much–no electricity, running water or indoor plumbing. My work was hard, mucking the stalls of the dairy barn, but the family was generous, sharing what little they had with us. I slept in the same room with the farmers’ kids and recall it as a mostly positive experience. Despite the lack of comforts, I felt secure with people who I felt could be trusted.

A more recent experience informed me about how much real progress has been made. As I did outreach in the early 1990s in the Central San Joaquin Valley of California, a farmworker family offered me the opportunity to live with them in a labor camp just south of the City of Mendota. Their generous offer was gratefully accepted. The small house was comfortable, fully equipped with all of the modern conveniences, and the family’s hospitality was a delight. One evening, after a lovely meal, I reflected how blessed I was to have been offered the gift of their friendship and a comfortable place to stay. And I thought about how wonderful it would be if all farmworkers could have a home that was as nice, and I resolved to persist in trying to help make that dream a reality.

Schenker: I have recently advocated for a universal public service in the U.S. Service not to fight wars, but to help communities in need and restore crumbling infrastructure. I believe that the intangible benefits of such a program would be as great as the physical improvements. People would learn about our common needs, our differences, our hopes and dreams. Such an understanding would go an enormous way to improving the socialization of our population, and ultimately to reducing health and other disparities. Such a goal and accomplishment has existed for decades internationally in the Peace Corps, and more recently in this country with programs such as Teach for America. Americans largely live in isolated communities, go to segregated schools, and in general are unaware of the different people and communities that exist. Universal public service would be a powerful means of breaking down those barriers.

Epilogue: The Final Rule for the Temporary Employment of H-2A Aliens was published on December 18, 2008 in the Federal Register. No changes were made to the established regulations that require employers to provide housing for all H-2A workers, and the Department of Labor will continue to be required to inspect and certify housing as safe prior to occupancy.

The Schenker and Villarejo policy paper entitled, Environmental Health Policy and California’s Farm Labor Housing is posted on the John Muir Institute’s Web site. A press release on their paper is also available, with photographs by David Bacon.

Pending publication: “The Challenge of Housing California’s Hired Farm Laborers,” Invited Book Chapter, Rural Housing in the Age of Exurban Expansion, David Marcoullieur, Owen Furuseth and Mark Lapping  (Editors), Ashgate Publishing, Hampshire, United Kingdom, In press, 2008.


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