Monday, July 09, 2007

Cultural Isolation A Health Threat to Punjabi Farm Workers

New America Media is the country’s first and largest national collaboration of ethnic news organizations. NAM’s goal is to promote the editorial visibility and economic viability of this critical sector of American journalism as a way to build inclusive public discourse in our increasingly diverse, global society. Here is a piece about environmental health issues of Punjabi farm workers from NAM that caught my interest:

Language and cultural barriers have long isolated Punjabi farm laborers in the Sacramento Valley. Activists stress the need for communication as workers continue to suffer from exposure to toxic chemicals, as well as low wages and little access to health care.

According to the 2000 census estimates, there could be as many as 2,000 Punjabi farm laborers living in Sutter and its neighboring Yuba County in the Sacramento River valley, where Punjabis have been farmers since the turn of the century. Most are recent immigrants from remote Punjabi farming communities, who have entered the U.S. legally through family connections. Others are the elderly relatives of established Punjabi American families.

Part of the problem is that California government agencies designated to protect the rights of farm workers, such as the Employment Development Department and the Agricultural Labor Relations Board, do not have Punjabi-speaking outreach workers.

Last year, five Indian American farmers paid fines for failing to provide workers with coveralls when they worked with insecticides and ground fumigants known to be highly toxic. When sprayed by workers not garbed in protective gear, the chemicals can be absorbed into the body through the skin, causing hives, flu-like symptoms, stomach cramps, diarrhea and blurred vision. Exposure has also been linked to impaired neurological development in fetuses and in infants, chronic fatigue syndrome and Parkinson’s disease. But the most common and far-reaching violations are the seemingly trivial ones — a failure to post emergency medical care information, or to provide fresh drinking water. Dehydration among Punjabi farm workers is of particular concern because of their propensity to develop cardiovascular disease.

In Mahal Plaza, a Yuba City housing complex for low-income farm workers, two women in their seventies, white dupattas drawn over their heads, sit in the sun, knitting and chatting. “The work is hard, and we are old, but we keep doing it so we can contribute something to our families,” said one woman. “We have no choice but to do this work — it’s all we know.” The women sort and pick peaches and climb ladders to prune the trees in the winter. The majority of Mahal Plaza’s residents seem to rely on the county’s public health department for basic health services, and on fee-for-service private physicians, for non-primary care.

Harpreet Kaur (not her real name) has been working in peach orchards and nurseries for several years. She would love to find a full-time job at a factory, because the work is a little safer and is done indoors. But to qualify to live in Mahal Plaza, a majority of one’s income has to come from farm work. If Kaur took a job in a factory, chances are that she, her husband and their two teenage daughters would be without a home. Like many of the men living in Mahal Plaza, Kaur’s husband doesn’t work. Last spring, while moving irrigation pipes in a Marysville orchard, his foot got stuck under a pipe. In his struggle to extricate it, much of the skin was gouged off his leg. “The foreman followed the rules and took him to the hospital,” said Kaur, “but he wasn’t invited to work again.”

But what poses the greatest danger to the Punjabi farm-working community, according to Kamaljit, is its cultural isolation. “Most of us don’t speak English, and the people who want to help us don’t speak Punjabi,” she said. “We don’t know what we’re missing out on. Something wrong could be happening, but we would never know it.”