After Oahu Farm Workers Fall Ill, State Inspectors Look Into Workers' Safety, Food Security
“Our enforcement field inspector has made contact with the farmer in question and has scheduled to meet with and conduct an Agricultural Use Inspection with him,” said Thomas Matsuda, manager of the Ag Department’s pesticides program office.
The staff in the pesticides office has been reduced in recent years on Oahu from five inspectors down to one.
The Big Island has two inspectors and there is one each on other islands.
The inspectors are responsible for enforcing both state and federal laws and regulations governing the sales, storage and application of “restricted use pesticides,” which pose and health and environmental risks.
They also are responsible for oversight of general pesticides and much of their work is devoted to policing urban applications of pesticides, including termite fumigation.
Matsuda did not directly respond when was asked if his office has been able to keep up with its inspection workload given the sharp reductions in staff.
“The scope of our program is to assure the safe, efficient and effective use of pesticides to minimize their adverse effects on man and the environment,” he said.
Hawaii Reporter disclosed earlier this month that one farm worker at a Kahuku farm owned by Tony Law was hospitalized at Castle Medical Center after suffering a stroke. Tony Law is one of four Law brothers operating farms in Hawaii.
The worker, Alay Tansili, came to Hawaii in 2006 on a “B2” visitor’s visa good for a six-month stay in the country and worked illegally on farms here since then.
Another "B2" Lao worker at the same Kahuku farm, Khamfanh Keohavong, suffered serious medical problems this year after prolonged exposure to pesticides. He said he and Alay had to spray three to four days a week with virtually no training. Being that they don’t speak English, they cannot read the warning or instruction labels.
Melissa Vincenty, a local immigration attorney who represents several dozen human trafficking victims in Hawaii originally from Thailand and Laos, said Alay and Khamfanh have worked under "terrible conditions" and were sickened after spraying chemicals several days a week over a period of years.
While Khamfanh experienced blackouts and numbness is his limbs and now has a brain tumor, Alay suffered from rashes, shortness of breath, headaches, fatigue, numbness in his arms and legs and the loss of his sense of taste and later had a stroke.
Alay had been afraid to leave the farm as Khamfanh did, because he was under the impression that his situation is not as bad as what other Laotian workers are experiencing in Hawaii. Both say they lived on the Tony Law farm for at least four years.
Law said he only knew Alay as “a friend” and was trying to help him get back to Laos. Law denied that Alay was involved in the mixture or application of pesticides on the farm, saying he personally handles that aspect of farm operations.
Law visited Alay several times at Castle Medical Center and continuously tried to get him discharged. With two other male farm workers, they pulled Alay out of bed, unhooked his monitors and walked him in a wheelchair down the hall to the elevator twice. Law said he was not trying to forcefully take Alay out of the hospital. Both times the conspicuous group was stopped and turned back before getting into the elevator – once by a nurse and another by a friend of Alay.
Law maintains workers at his farm are not covered by health insurance because they float from farm to farm and are not regular employees. They also are not housed in substandard quarters, Law said, saying he also lives on the Kahuku farm.
However, photos taken of the work site where Khamfanh lived show his three- walled plywood shack that had no furniture, electricity, bathroom or shower facilities or a kitchen. There are no screens or windows and the floors are made of wooden food crates. While there were pesticide containers on site, the workers disclosed they were ordered to burn other pesticide containers the day before.
As soon as Alay was released from the hospital after more than a week stay, Law sent him back to Laos. He said Alay wanted to go home and seek alternative acupuncture treatment in Laos. Vincenty said Law told her he wanted to remain in Hawaii and receive physical therapy to ensure he would not spend the rest of his life in a wheel chair.
There are reportedly as many as 1,000 “B2” Laotian workers like Alay and Khamfanh employed as a virtually invisible workforce on Hawaii farms, according to the results of a Hawaii Reporter ongoing investigation.
The Laotian workers don’t know they are traveling to Hawaii on a visitor visa, and they believe they are working legally because they paid steep recruitment fees both in Laos and Hawaii.
Many workers said they paid $5,000 in Laos to a recruiter, but did not realize until they arrived in Hawaii they would owe as much as $25,000 more to a local recruiter who picked them up at the airport and placed them on a farm.
Once they realize they have been set up, they are afraid to leave the farms and get help, even if they are sick, because they fear being deported before they can repay what in some cases amounts to as much as $30,000 in recruitment fees.
They are told not to speak to anyone outside the farm and not to leave – even to go to the doctor or get food – without permission of the recruiter.
Walter Chun, who once headed the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration in the Pacific and now has his own Hawaii safety consulting company, OSHCON, Inc., said workers' health and food security are major concerns.
“When it comes to the safety of our produce from farms we rely almost entirely on the integrity, knowledge, experience and reliability on the farmers. Although there are regulations for handling pesticides for our produce there is only a very small amount of personnel available to enforce these regulations. If the farmer misuses these pesticides and poisons by not applying them properly we are the people that will suffer the effects.”
Chun said the EPA and Department of Agriculture has strict rules regarding who can apply these pesticides.
“They must be trained and take an exam to demonstrate their knowledge before being licensed. As of right now we don't know what is on our produce if a farmer does not follow the rules and regulations.”
Equally important, Chun said, is the safety and health of the farm workers who are directed to mix and spray these toxic materials. “They are not knowledgeable of the requirements to dilute and spray, measures to take to protect them from exposure, and to monitor the work operations for overexposure. Farm workers in these kinds of farms that are getting sick from improper handling of pesticides and poisons is a strong indicator that our produce is not protected and these workers are also not protected.”
He agrees the exposure to these chemicals can be toxic, especially for children and infants. “Our only way of knowing that the produce from these farms are safe is trusting that the farmers are applying the pesticides and poisons properly and in diluted and low dosages. If the workers are getting sick and they are not qualified to apply these pesticides and poisons then we have to question the safety and integrity of the produce from these farms.”
Kathryn Xian, Executive Director for the Pacific Alliance to Stop Slavery, said: "The Pacific Alliance to Stop Slavery is extremely concerned about this case and the potential public health risks involved with any misuse of harmful pesticides, whether this be due to tainting of the ground water, air pollution during and after sprays, or over doses of pesticides on produce sold to stores and restaurants. These kinds of cases are not the type upon which the state or federal government can 'wait.' Not only are the laborers in harm's way due to the chemicals, how they were recruited and brought to the U.S. is very suspect. These facts alone warrant swift investigations on all fronts. Not only are the laborers at risk, but also potentially the greater community, and the reputation of any local farmer and the overall agricultural business community in Hawaii."
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