What about the health of agricultural workers?

What about the health of agricultural workers?

Recognition is lacking when it comes to the ailments and diseases associated with agricultural work, such as those caused by exposure to potentially toxic substances. In this image of a field in north-west France, a farmer sprays the glyphosate-based herbicide, Roundup 720.

(Jean-François Monier/AFP)

The people who work to grow and harvest the food we eat play a key role in ensuring our good health and proper nutrition. And yet they often do so at the expense of their own health, owing to a combination of factors: the arduous nature of the work, the difficulties accessing the health system for the most precarious workers, and the constant exposure to the potentially toxic substances in the agrochemicals commonly applied in agribusiness.

“We suffer from health problems related to working in agriculture: back pain, neck injuries, lumbago, musculoskeletal conditions, and, because of our exposure to agrochemicals, headaches, stomach problems and allergies,” says Ana Pinto, from the Jornaleras de Huelva en Lucha (JHL), a collective defending the rights of the women employed as seasonal labour to pick strawberries and red fruit in the Andalusian province of Huelva, in Spain. According to Pinto, not only is it “very hard to have these types of ailments recognised as occupational illnesses”, but agricultural workers also have difficulty accessing sick leave.

“It is not uncommon for people to be put out of work if their employer finds out that they are ill; you can denounce it but the justice system is slow, and what do you do while you are waiting for your case to be heard? In practice, in agriculture, people can be fired at will,” says Pinto.

The situation is even more critical when the people employed are migrants. Those whose administrative status is irregular are unlikely to have access to the health system, let alone any kind of employee benefits: “Undocumented workers have no rights, they are not even recognised as workers,” explains Pinto. In Huelva, women from Morocco are often employed in the red fruit greenhouses. They arrive legally through what are known as “contracts at origin”, which allow them to reside and work in Spain for the duration of the strawberry and red fruit season.

These workers pay social security contributions, but when they need assistance, their access to health and labour rights is obstructed: “When they have a serious health problem, the company usually washes its hands of them and threatens to send them back to Morocco. At JHL, we work to secure benefits retroactively,” says Pinto.

“On top of all this are the mental health problems associated with the anxiety caused by the productivity lists. There are people who take pills before starting the day’s work.” She is referring to the common practice, in Huelva, of publishing lists compiling information on how much fruit each worker has picked; those ranking lowest are unlikely to be called upon when there is less work, placing their livelihoods at stake. It puts the workers under enormous pressure, at the same time as creating a culture of competitiveness on the job.

The situation is similar in other parts of Europe where farming is intensive, such as the south of France and southern Italy. Many workers from countries such as Ecuador, Colombia or Morocco, with legal residence in Spain, have gone to work in Provence, France, through temporary employment agencies (ETTs) based in Spain. This hiring system has prospered because it is very advantageous for French agricultural companies: the workers continue to pay social security in Spain, where the contributions are lower. The French justice system has, however, already condemned several of these ETTs, such as Safor Temporis and Terra Fecundi, having deemed the practice to be fraudulent towards the French state. For their part, workers employed through this system find it very difficult to access the health system – as well as to exercise their labour rights – when they have an accident at work or a health problem.

“I had an accident at work when I first arrived. The company didn’t care and now I have a debt of €4,000,” says Rocío (not her real name), a woman of Colombian origin who was legally resident in Spain when she was offered work in Beaucaire, in France, through a Spanish temporary employment agency. Jesus (not his real name), who also went to Beaucaire after years working in agriculture in the Spanish province of Murcia, had a similar experience: “I had an accident at work and the company told me that, in France, anyone who has an accident can be fired. They take advantage of the fact that we don’t speak the language or know the laws of the country.”

“The workers in the most precarious situations, and who are under the most pressure to increase their productivity, are also the most vulnerable to accidents at work,” says Javier Guzmán, director of Justicia Alimentaria Global (Global Food Justice).

This NGO recently published a report analysing the conditions of various jobs in the primary sector: red fruit harvesting, food packing and slaughterhouse work in the meat industry. “The precariousness associated with these jobs and the lack of rights have a huge impact in terms of occupational accidents. In addition, some workers cannot afford to take sick leave because they are working through false self-employment arrangements, a temporary employment agency, or without a contract,” explains Guzmán.

The risks posed by pesticides

Perhaps one of the main health hazards affecting agricultural workers, and also one of the most invisible, is their exposure to potentially harmful agrochemicals. “In most cases, we are not given any kind of protective equipment when we have to plant seedlings in soil that has just been sprayed. And there are even times when a worker, wearing adequate protection, comes to spray and practically covers us in poison,” says Pinto.

The components of many agrochemicals used by the agricultural industry, especially insecticides and other pesticides, include substances that are potentially hazardous to health. Many of them act as endocrine disruptors, altering how hormones work, which can affect the reproductive system, for example, leading to menstrual cycle disorders, fertility problems, miscarriages and foetal anomalies. In Brazil, currently the world’s largest consumer of agrochemicals, researchers from the Federal University of Paraná (UFPR) have systematised 116 different scientific studies that are conclusive about the negative consequences of these substances on human health and call for “studies on the effects of chronic and simultaneous exposure to various agrochemicals”.

One of the most controversial products, which is still used by the agrifood industry, is Bayer-Monsanto’s Roundup, which consists of glyphosate and atrazine. Glyphosate is the world’s most widely used weed killer.

In 2015, the World Health Organization (WHO) classified the substance as “probably carcinogenic” to humans. Its use is banned in Austria and is limited in countries such as Belgium, Portugal and France. And yet, the European Union decidedin 2017 to permit its use for five more years, then renewed its authorisation in 2022.

The Risk Assessment Committee of the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) once again classified glyphosate as a substance that causes serious eye damage and is toxic to aquatic life, but again ruled out its link to various types of cancer. The NGO coalition Ban Glyphosate challenged ECHA’s decision, which ignored the scientific evidence presented against the use of glyphosate.

Other substances used by industry have generated less controversy than glyphosate but are equally dangerous. Parathion and other compounds commonly used in “organophosphate pesticides”, for example, are known to inhibit cholinesterase, a substance the human organism needs for the brain and nervous system to work properly.

A 2021 report by Earthjustice concluded that farm workers in at least eight US states are at risk of developing neurological problems due to prolonged exposure to organophosphate pesticides. Eight of the 17 pesticides reviewed by the researchers were associated with reproductive damage or were classed as carcinogenic. The study concludes that “all organophosphates are associated with intellectual disability”, and that the US Environmental Protection Agency should therefore ban their use in foodstuffs.

Although pesticides affect the health of those who consume the food, their impact is more serious for those who live in the vicinity of the areas sprayed, and even more so for farm workers. Among the latter group, the women workers are the worst affected. There is scientific evidence – such as that put forward in the work of researcher Carme Valls-Llobet, for example – that the impact on women’s health tends to be greater. The reasons for this are in part biological, such as women having a higher percentage of body fat, which makes it easier for toxins to persist in the body, but there are also cultural factors, such as women tending to be more exposed to a combination of substances as they are more likely to make regular use of cleaning products and cosmetics.

This article has been translated from Spanish by Louise Durkin