Migrant Farm Workers and Their Children

By Waldman, H. Barry; Cannella, Dolores et al. | The Exceptional Parent, November 2010 | Go to article overview
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Migrant Farm Workers and Their Children


Waldman, H. Barry, Cannella, Dolores, Perlman, Steven P., The Exceptional Parent


In 2005, the number of international migrants was between 185 million and 192 million individuals. Almost all countries are affected by migration, whether as sending, in transit or as a receiving country.

"International migration has become an intrinsic feature of globalization." (1)

There are between 3 and 5 million migrant and seasonable farm workers (MSFWs) in the United States (including husbands, wives, children and other family members). (2) A seasonal farm worker has been defined as "an individual whose principle employment is in agriculture on a seasonal basis who has been so employed within the last twenty-four months ... A migrant farm worker meets the same definition but establishes for the purposes of such employment a temporary abode." (3) Contrary to popular beliefs, most migrants are either US citizens or have attained legal residency. In addition, the majority of people living a migrant lifestyle have a nuclear family unit.

About two-thirds of MSFWs are "shuttle migrants" who travel from a home base (either inside or outside of the US) to a specific destination for seasonal employment in agriculture. The remaining one-third follows crops for employment and move from place to place. They usually follow predetermined migratory streams along the Atlantic seaboard (primarily, people who are black, Haitian and Puerto Rican and call Florida their main base even though they move along the east coast to find work); the West Coast (originates in Southern California and primarily made up of people of Hispanic origin); or through the midwestern states (primarily people of Hispanic origin originating in Texas). Eighty-one percent of farm workers and their families are foreign born, 95 percent of these are from Mexico. (2)

HAZARDS AND CONSEQUENCES

"Agriculture is one of the most hazardous occupations in the United States." (2)

MSFWs labor in all seasons and weather conditions. Work often requires stoop labor, working with soil and/or heavy machinery, climbing, and carrying heavy loads, all of which lead to chronic musculoskeletal symptoms. "Direct contact with plants can cause allergic rashes or, in the case of tobacco farmers, 'green tobacco sickness' (i.e. transdermal nicotine poisoning)." (2) Underreporting of medical conditions is significant due to limited access to health services, different cultural conceptions of health and disease, and fear of lost wages or jobs. (4)

Infectious disease--Migrant workers are at increased risk of contracting a variety of viral, bacterial, fungal and parasitic infections. They are approximately six times more likely to have tuberculosis than the general public. Parasitic infection rates are as great as 59 times higher as in the general population.

Migrant workers are also at increased risk for urinary tract infections partly as a result of a lack of toilets at the workplace and stringent working conditions that promote chronic urinary retention.

Chemical and pesticide illness--Migrant workers suffer from the highest rates of toxic chemical injuries of any group of workers in the country. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 300,000 farm workers suffer acute pesticide poisoning each year. Chemical and pesticide poisoning may result from direct spraying by workers, indirect sprays from wind drifts, bathing in or drinking contaminated water, or transfer residues from contaminated hands while eating, smoking or defecating.

Dermatitis--Agricultural workers have a higher incidence of skin disorders than employees in any other industry.

Respiratory conditions--Migrant workers are exposed to many hazardous agents, including organic and inorganic dusts.

Reproductive health--Prolonged standing and bending, overexertion, poor nutrition and pesticide or chemical exposure increases spontaneous abortions, premature delivery, fetal malformation and growth retardation.

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