By Dick Meister

IMAGINE HAVING A JOB THAT requires you to work bent in half. That
requires you to move swiftly between narrow rows of plants, constantly
stooping to ground level to snatch up a weed with your bare hands -- then
another and another, scarcely pausing to straighten.  And doing it for hours
at a time.

Many thousands of farmworkers across the country do have such jobs. Which is
why many have the serious hack ailments that are among the worst of the
health and safety problems that make harvesting our food one of the most
dangerous of all occupations.

The growers who impose such primitive working conditions claim that's the
way it has to be.  They say allowing workers to stand upright and use
long-handled hoes for the essential task of weeding would increase crop
damage, decrease production, and require more use of hazardous weed-killing
pesticides. But above all, they worry that it might lower their profits.

Those who put the welfare of workers first have other concerns.  They are
demanding that government authorities protect farmworkers by banning
hand-weeding, starting in California, the nation's leading agriculture

We're trying to get at what fundamentally is a human-rights abuse ....
There is an alternative tool that is safe and available, but workers are not
permitted to use it," says Mark Schacht of California Rural Legal

His organization, a longtime advocate for farmworkers, has joined with the
United Farm Workers Union and the AFL-CIO's California Labor Federation to
petition the state's Occupational Safety and Health agency -- OSHA -- for a
ban. They want growers to provide workers with hoes at least four feet long
to do the work now done by hand.  Those who failed to do so would face fines
of at least $500 per worker for each violation.

The petitioners base part of their argument on a memorandum from OSHA's
medical unit that said hand-weeding "constitutes a continuing threat to the
health and well-being" of workers.

Similar findings led California officials to ban use of the once widely used
short-handled hoe in 1975.  They cited physicians' reports of workers who
suffered ruptured spinal disks, arthritis of the spine and other often
irreparable injuries because they were forced to use what the UFW called
"this despised tool" -- known unaffectionately among workers as "El

Yet 28 years later, farmworker advocates are still waging a struggle to
shield workers from debilitating back injuries.  As OSHA's medical unit
reported, workers today face the "same unsafe conditions that the short-hoe
legislation attempted to rectify."

Hand-weeding actually is even harder on workers than using short-handled
hoes, for it requires them to bend down up to one foot more in order to
reach the ground. Many growers turned to hand-weeding after the hoe ban went
into effect, even though using longer hoes can do the job without harming

OSHA has appointed an advisory board of union, grower, agency and academic
representatives that's been deliberating on whether to recommend action by
the agency.

Whatever the result, farmworker advocates are likely to follow up with an
attempt to get the State Legislature to enact a ban.  They attempted that in
1995 and again last year, only to be blocked by California's powerful
agricultural lobby.

But this time they will have, if not the backing of the state's Occupational
Safety and Health agency, then certainly much new evidence of the compelling
need to finally end the barbarous practice that has done such great harm to
some of our most exploited and valuable workers.

     Copyright c 2003, Dick Meister, co-author of "A Long Time Coming: The
Struggle to Unionize America's Farm Workers" (Macmillan).

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