Banning documentation of farm animals abuse would make farmworkers more vulnerable

FarmworkerchildPosted by Harvesting Justice – the blog of Farmworker Justice | 19 Apr 2011 08:42 AM PDT

Written by Jessica Felix-Romero ~ Original article from Harvesting Justice

 The New York Times published an article on April 13th titled States Look to Ban Efforts to Reveal Farm Abuse in which reporter A.G. Sulzberger writes about pending legislation to criminalize taking or distributing photos or videos taken at agricultural facilities without the express permission of the facility management. The proposed law has a primary focus on stopping animal rights activists from exposing illegal or inhuman treatment of animals. However, this type of legislation has significant repercussions for farmworkers. Farmworker Justice invited attorney Melody Fowler-Green to blog on the potential impacts restricting video collection would have on farmworkers who are often working in isolated settings with limited ability to document violations of law or abuse that they experience.

Th_MelodyFowler-Green Melody Fowler-Green is a Staff Attorney at Southern Migrant Legal Services, a Project of Texas RioGrande Legal Aid and has been a farmworker advocate for over ten years.  She found a natural home in the worker’s rights community as the daughter of a union autoworker in Flint, Michigan. 

The proposed laws to criminalize surreptitious videos taken at agricultural facilities may do more than thwart animal rights activists. (see NYT article above) Southern Migrant Legal Services  filed a federal suit last week on behalf of 15 farmworkers which  illustrates these laws may also prevent isolated and vulnerable workers from protecting themselves against illegal activity, including pesticide exposure.

In the decade that I have represented migrant agricultural workers, cell phone ownership among our clients has increased exponentially.  Affordable phones purchased from big box stores have allowed migrant workers, some of them thousands of miles from home, to keep in touch with their families, to enjoy some entertainment in the evenings listening to familiar music, and are now proving invaluable to aid them in asserting their rights.  Workers are using cameras on the phones to document their living and working conditions and then to contact advocates and attorneys when those conditions violate the law.  This has surely not gone unnoticed by employers and farm labor contractors.  In fact, many employers who employ temporary nonimmigrant guestworkers are adopting work rules (unfortunately approved by the United States Department of Labor) that make use of cell phones or electronic devises during work hours a firing offense.

Last summer guestworkers at a large tomato farm in East Tennessee used their cell phones to record what they believed to by the misuse of pesticides.  These workers contacted us here at Southern Migrant Legal Services complaining that tractors were spraying tomato plants just yards from their housing, on fields next to them when they were eating lunch, and directly on other workers who were in the fields.  While these potentially illegal activities were taking place miles from a town or other witnesses, our clients were able to capture some of the incidents on their cell phone video cameras – providing advocates with a rare look at working conditions for farmworkers and turning these otherwise isolated workers into whistleblowers.  For this, these workers were brutally fired, leading to the lawsuit they filed last week in federal court.

I applaud the bravery these farmworkers have shown in documenting their treatment and in standing up against the retaliation they faced by doing so.  I fear that laws intended to prevent animal rights activists from filming the inhumane treatment of animals will also take away from farmworkers one of the few ways they can fight against inhumane treatment they themselves suffer.

CarlitosCarlitos, child of farmworkers, born with birth defects attributable to pesticides (PBP).
Source: Sarasota/Manatee Farmworker Supporters

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