August 28, 2009

Immigrant dairy workers of the West at risk

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Rebecca Clarren at High Country News  revealed in an recent investigative piece that West Coast immigrant dairy workers have long faced higher workplace hazards than the average U.S. worker. In an extensive review of the industry, Clarren finds that patchy data — and employees fearful of speaking up — have made dairy workers  “more vulnerable than ever before.” Clarren writes:

They were killed in tractor accidents, suffocated by falling hay bales, crushed by charging cows and bulls and asphyxiated by gases from manure lagoons and corn silage. Others survived but lost limbs or received concussions and spent days in the hospital. However, it’s difficult to form an accurate picture of the dangers lurking in dairies because the data are incomplete. Due in part to lobbying by the powerful agricultural industry, the reporting requirements for employers are full of holes, and state and federal laws prevent safety agencies from investigating injuries and deaths in certain cases. Meanwhile, dairy workers themselves are often too afraid to speak up.

Despite the fact that skyrocketing milk production in the West has forced one-time small pastures into expansive city-size operations, which produce nearly half of America’s milk supply, Clarren found that federal labor laws do not cover the West’s 50,000 dairy workers, the majority of which are immigrants. In fact, they are exempt from the National Labor Relations Act, which forces employers to negotiate with labor unions over salaries, and protects employees who try to form unions. Clarren calls it the “Magna Carta of American labor.”

While the work is inherently risky, something Labor and Industries spokesmen have argued, dairy owners feel they have taken the appropriate steps to prevent tradgedies. It’s in their best interest too — insurance premiums can soar in the event of an accident.

But as dairy farms tread water to stay afloat in rough economic times,  workers cling even tighter to their jobs — often taking on more tasks. Some advocates, such as Corwyn Fischer, safety director of the Washington State Farm Bureau, believe this is how improper working conditions thrive:

People are trying to prove to their employer that they’re a good worker… They’ll think, ‘I need to stay on,’ and they work harder and they get injured.

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