PANUPS: Hazards of Farm Work

                         P A N U P S
                   Pesticide Action Network 
                        North America
                       Updates Service

April 7, 1997

Agricultural Wage Workers Continue to Suffer

According to a new report from the International Labour 
Organization, pesticide poisoning remains a daily occurrence 
among agricultural workers in developing countries. The 
report, "Wage Workers in Agriculture: Conditions of 
Employment and Work," notes that up to 14% of all 
occupational injuries in the agricultural sector and 10% of 
all fatal injuries can be attributed to pesticides. 

The report states that establishing a precise link between 
agricultural injuries and direct or indirect exposure to 
agrochemicals is often difficult due to poor reporting and 
difficulty in establishing a correct diagnosis. In some 
areas, workers may not have direct access to medical care, as 
hospitals and doctors are many miles away. In addition, 
general practitioners may often underestimate work-related 
poisonings because symptoms are non-specific and effects are 
often cumulative. 

Even in countries or regions with good reporting systems, 
under reporting is likely. In California, which is recognized 
as having one of the best reporting systems, the process 
probably identifies only a small fraction of pesticide-
related illnesses. This is due primarily to two reasons: a) 
many acute cases of pesticide poisoning may escape detection 
and b) the system does not include monitoring for chronic 
illnesses. One analyst estimated that up to 80% of pesticide 
illnesses are unreported in California.

Agriculture is ranked by the U.S. National Safety Council as 
among the three most hazardous occupations in the country -- 
the death rate was 44 per 100,000 in 1991. In Washington 
state, the insurance claim rate by agricultural workers was 
approximately 50% higher than by non-agricultural workers. Of 
the claims, 29% were for various forms of dermatitis and 23% 
for systemic effects due to toxic materials.

There are approximately 1.1 billion workers active in 
agricultural production worldwide. Nearly half are wage 
laborers. Women represent an increasing proportion of the 
agricultural workforce, now accounting for 20-30% of total 
agricultural waged employment. Child labor in some developing 
countries is as high as 30% of the workforce. The ILO report 
found that many millions of these workers earn wages that 
place them of the bottom rung of the rural poverty ladder -- 
below minimum subsistence level, in spite of rising 
agricultural trade and labor productivity around the world.

Poverty and poor conditions intensify the problems of working 
with pesticides, making safe handling of hazardous chemicals 
almost impossible. The report argues, for example, that lack 
of protective equipment, ill-adapted to local weather 
conditions and hence little used, is a contributing factor to 
pesticide-related illness. Improper use of protective 
equipment through inadequate training seems frequent, as is 
inadequate maintenance of spraying equipment.

A sample survey of 45 countries from all regions shows that 
real wages declined for agricultural workers in 18 of the 
countries, with no substantial changes in eight others. Only 
six of the 45 countries (Argentina, Colombia, Cameroon, 
Nigeria, Philippines and Sweden) showed a strong real wage 
increase of 30% or more, whereas 13 countries showed a drop 
of 30% or more.

Recommendations from the ILO report include the need for 
strong labor-intensive growth in agriculture stimulated by 
investments in infrastructure. The report also recommends a 
major drive in support of more and broader collective 
bargaining for farmworkers and a sustained effort to improve 
working conditions, from transport to occupational safety and 
health. Child labor must be sharply reduced, and basic social 
security benefits must be extended to agricultural wage 

Source: Pesticides News 35, March 1997 (The quarterly journal 
of The Pesticides Trust, Eurolink Centre, 49 Effra Road SW2 
1BZ, London, UK; pesttrust@gn.apc.org). Preventing Pesticide-
related Illness in California Agriculture by William Pease, 
et al., 1993, University of California, Berkeley.
Contact: International Labour Organization, Vincent House, 
Vincent Square, London SW1P 2NB, UK.
International Labour Organization, CH-1211, Geneva 22, 
Switzerland; phone (41-22) 799 6111; fax (41-22) 798 8685; 
email brodien@ilo.org; http://www.ilo.org.

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