April 29, 2005

Activists criticize pesticide control

South Florida workers suffering health problems, they say

IMMOKALEE Skin lesions, respiratory illnesses, lupus and even birth defects are plaguing South Florida's migrant farmworkers as pesticide use among untrained laborers remains largely unregulated, activists say.

Hoping to raise awareness of the plight of hundreds of workers, many of whom are undocumented and unwilling or unable to report abuse, the Farmworker Association of Florida made public Thursday its most recent health assessment of dangerous violations on farm and nursery sites in South Florida.

The association, based in Apopka with offices in Pierson, Homestead and Immokalee, interviewed hundreds of workers and reviewed working conditions at about 200 vegetable farms, nurseries and citrus fields in Hendry, Collier, Dade, Volusia and Orange counties.

They found 123 violations ranging from a lack of required warning signs that pesticides had been sprayed to actual spraying of dangerous chemicals directly behind a worker.

"We have pictures," said Francisco Garza, project organizer for the association. He is completing complaint affidavits for every violation his group was able to document.

During its six-week assessment, the association trained 362 farmworkers in proper pesticide handling and gave them U.S. Environmental Protection Agency signature cards to verify they had been briefed.

Most troubling, the association said, is the ongoing misuse of pesticides near untrained farmworkers by companies that violate state regulations.

"We want the public to know what's going on and that we have serious health problems in our community," said Tirso Moreno, general coordinator for

the association.

The skin on Ciro Diaz's arms, neck and torso looks like the skin of a burn victim.

Covered with scarring pustules, redness and a maze of paper-thin wrinkles, Diaz, a 27-year-old from
Miami, said the symptoms began about six months ago after he worked for a company that had him spray weed killer on plants.

The herbicide was in a container strapped to his back.

"When I crawled under trees, the chemical would come out all over my body," he said. "It felt very cold, kind of refreshing."

When his skin began burning and redness appeared, he said his supervisor told him he needed to be more careful. Diaz had to pay to go to a clinic when his skin broke out in an angry rash.

That's when he lost his job.

"When I talked to the boss man, he said it happened because I didn't take care," Diaz said. "He said, 'You're fired, so that next time you'll learn better.' "

Diaz, with help from the association, filed a complaint with the Florida Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services. He also is suing his former company for workers' compensation.

The problem, activists say, is agricultural companies aren't investigated because farmworkers rarely file complaints.

"The state tells us, we don't have any complaints, there is nothing for us to investigate," Moreno said. "So these companies do whatever they want. The undocumented workers they don't get equal protection."

Without protection, many farmworkers are reluctant to step forward when their rights are violated, state agricultural commission spokesman Terence McElroy said, and without complaints, the state can't do much, he said.

He said the state will follow up on any complaints it receives.

McElroy said agricultural Commissioner Charles Bronson supports federal legislation that would confer legal status on undocumented farmworkers.

There are some 44,000 farms in Florida from small, private farms to large corporate entities and an estimated 100,000 to 200,000 farmworkers at peak season.