By: Dan Derman, SAF Fellow
Every other Wednesday, the Outreach Department of Carolina Family Health Centers brings Dr.Jeff along on their farmworker outreach trips to provide free medical screenings on-site at farmworker labor camps. Dr.Jeff (with myself serving as interpreter) listens to the health complaints of these H2A contract workers and offers advice, gives out some over-the-counter medicine he brings with him in an orange and black medicine box, or refers these workers to come to one of our 3 community health clinics for a more complete consultation.
Many of the complaints we hear should be very familiar to anyone who has worked in farmworker outreach or healthcare: skin rashes and dry, burning eyes caused by exposure to harmful pesticides; weakness, dizziness, and vomiting from handling the wet leaves of the green tobacco plant; and of course the stomach pains, leg and arm cramps, and unbearable headaches that are all symptomatic of one of the most common health problems facing migrant and seasonal farmworkers: heat stress.
When thinking about the examples of heat stress I have encountered during my work with CFHC, a farmworker camp we refer to as “Pink Camp” immediately springs to mind. Our visit to Pink Camp with Dr.Jeff saw far more participation in the free medical screenings than I had ever seen before; by the end of the night, we had given 35 farmworkers consultations on a variety of issues ranging from the flu to inner ear infections.
As it grew darker outside and we began to pack up our things, two men approached us with a question. They said that many of the workers at the camp complained of headaches, muscle cramps, and stomach pains while working out in the fields. Dr.Jeff asked them if they were drinking enough water, and they both immediately answered that yes, there was always enough water to go around in the field. However, when asked how often they got to take a break during the day, the two men exchanged furtive glances, each one seeming to wait for the other to speak up first. Eventually, we learned that the only break these workers got during their 10-12 hour workdays was 30-45 minutes for lunch around midday. Aside from that, the only reprieve from the blazing sun and oppressive North Carolina humidity they received was the few seconds they took to stop, catch their breath, and take a few swigs of water.
It’s likely that these workers already knew that the symptoms they were suffering from were caused by heat stress, and simply wanted reassurance from a doctor that it was not something more serious. However, despite heat stress being a fairly easy condition to avoid with the proper preparation and vigilance in the field, the lack of real regulation of the working conditions for migrant and seasonal farmworkers in North Carolina means that these workers are essentially powerless to take the proper amount of rest and recuperation during the long hours they spend cutting tobacco leaves. When we asked if this was an issue they could take up with their “patrón” (the farm-owner), the men exchanged another nervous glance and cautiously explained that these topics were awkward to bring up with the man who controlled their only source of income.
Without the proper enforcement of agricultural labor laws, thousands of migrant and seasonal farmworkers will continue to suffer from completely preventable health conditions. In addition to heat stress, a lack of pesticide safety and hygienic living conditions also plague the farmworker population of North Carolina, despite legislation meant to regulate and control these issues. Urgent action is needed to raise awareness and inspire activism in the fight for farmworker justice.