THE BLOG
10/16/2014 03:01 pm ET Updated Dec 16, 2014

Tackling the Unfinished Work of Cesar Chavez

During Latino Heritage Month, many celebrate the life of Cesar Chavez and do so with good reason. As a child I learned about how Chavez fought to raise awareness and protect the farmworkers that put food on our table, and founded the United Farm Workers, the first organized union of farmworkers.

Chavez conceived of the labor, health and economic injustices issues as part of a larger movement for social justice and civil rights. In leading a movement of change he inspired so many to join the movement and achieved a great deal, including: the first union contracts requiring rest periods, toilets in the fields, clean drinking water, bans of sexual harassment of female workers and requiring the provision of protective clothing against pesticide exposure. My parents tell me my family didn't eat grapes for years in continuing our small part in the fight for better protections for farmworkers.

Now, we have a chance to continue to carry out his vision of social, environmental and economic justice for the nation's more than two million migrant and seasonal farmworkers that are still not fully protected. Farmworkers apply 1 billion pounds of pesticides and herbicides each year to kill weeds and pests. But the poisons they apply don't only kill bugs and weeds, they harm the workers themselves and their children.

According to federal government data, 3 percent of all farmworkers are children, between ages 14 and 17. Groups like United Farm Workers and Farmworker Justice that work closely with the workers in the fields and nurseries know the reality is even worse than what's captured by that data. Children as young as 7 and 8 are sometimes laboring in the fields and facing tremendous risks but the government doesn't keep data on workers that young.

In other industries, from restaurants to factories, there are federal age limits that prevent young children, who are more vulnerable, from facing the dangers of the workplace. For farm laborers there are no federal age limits that prevent young children from laboring in the fields. Although poverty and child care pressures may force young children to take on risky work to survive, the federal government could do far more to protect them, partly by keeping those who are under 18 from handling pesticides in the first place.

In addition, somewhere between 10,000 and 20,000 pesticide worker poisonings happen every year, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). And under current federal law, employers are not required to provide emergency medical assistance, even when their workers suffer a sudden illness from pesticide exposure.

The EPA, in a proposed "worker protection" standard, that should be finalized next spring, is planning to require employers to transport workers to a medical facility within 30 minutes of learning of an exposure. But farmworkers throughout the country that I work with are asking that any worker suffering from pesticide exposure be transported immediately after growers learn of the problem. The workers are well aware that the toxic chemicals in pesticides that growers require them to use are associated with cancer, neurological damage and respiratory illnesses.

EPA's proposed Worker Protection Standard for farm workers could be much stronger. Is protecting children from the rigors and dangers of farm labor too much to ask of the EPA? Is it not reasonable to expect companies who employ the laborers to provide proper protective gear and immediate emergency medical assistance when their workers are exposed to pesticides or injured? Why shouldn't we do all we can for the laborers who provide us with the food that nourishes our nation? At a minimum, why shouldn't the federal government offer farmworkers the protections that workers in other industries are given?

For me, Chavez's life and work serves as a constant reminder that we must be more tenacious in pushing the federal government and growers to improve the working conditions and quality of life of those laboring in the fields day in and day our to put food on our table.

I, for one, will celebrate the life of Cesar Chavez by continuing the fight for protecting our farmworkers and will keep his legacy alive and well.

I hope you will join us in learning more about this issue and ask the EPA to issue a standard that is truly protective of farmworkers across the United States.