To Maintain High Profits, California Organic Growers Gain Exemption from Worker Protection Rule

Hand Weeding in California

Hand Weeding Organic Crops in California

In 2005, the State of California banned the practice of hand weeding crop fields in order to protect farm workers from lifelong back pain. Because they don’t use herbicides, California organic vegetable growers employ farm workers to pull weeds by hand and claimed that hand weeding was absolutely essential to maintain high profits on organic produce. As a result of their lobbying, the California organic vegetable companies were exempted from the worker protection rule.

“The physically demanding nature of organic farming sparked a recent battle that pitted organic farmers against farmworkers. The UFW had long drawn attention to musculoskeletal problems suffered by people who work stooped over in the fields. In the 1970s the union led a successful campaign to ban the short-handled hoe, arguing that the tool caused back injuries. When union founder Cesar Chavez died, friends at the funeral placed one of the hoes on his casket. But growers soon found a way around the ban by requiring workers to weed by hand. Moises Olivera, a migrant worker who’s hopped from job to job throughout the Central Valley, explained to me how it feels…

“You go along on your knees,” he said. “There is a constant, numbing pain. By the end of a year people develop a lot of problems with their bones.”

In 2004 farmworker groups lobbied the California Occupational Safety and Health Administration to restrict hand-weeding. Organic farmers led the backlash against the proposal. While they have devised many creative tactics for banishing weeds without pesticides—singeing them with torches, slicing them with disks, allowing them to flourish before planting and then mowing them down—every organic farmer I talked to insisted there’s only one way to completely rid your crop of pesky plants: sitting, kneeling or bending, plucking them out one by one.

It’s tremendously costly. Yet farmers say there’s little alternative; long-handed hoes, which would allow workers to stand upright, can destroy some of the delicate specialty crops, such as baby leaf lettuce, that many organic farmers cultivate. At a minimum they would force farmers to space their plants farther apart, cutting into profits by yielding a smaller harvest on the same area of land…

The farmers ultimately triumphed, and OSHA exempted organic farms from the new rules, which went into effect last year. For labor advocates like Martha Guzman, who had sought to reach a compromise, it was a slap in the face…”

Author: Mello, F.
Affiliation: Reporter, The Nation.
Title: Hard Labor
Source: The Nation. September 11th, 2006.

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