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It Is Almost Indecent

September 13, 1985

Farm workers perform some of America's most fatiguing yet fundamental work. But while they are picking crops they are in many states denied the most fundamental amenities that most of the nation's workers take for granted: toilets, a place to wash their hands, and cool drinking water. It is almost indecent to have to petition the federal government to address so obvious a sanitation problem, but so far the Labor Department has demonstrated callous indifference to this immediate public-health issue.

Secretary of Labor William E. Brock III will direct state governments to provide these facilities within 18 months. Only then will the federal government intervene if the states have not acted. An Administration source said that "states are different and have different needs as to this kind of circumstance." What could possibly be "different" from state to state about the need for toilets, sinks and drinking water? And if Brock truly believes that these facilities are needed, as he told Congress at his confirmation hearings, why not act now?

What does appear to be different is the states' willingness to act. Thirteen, including California, have field-sanitation requirements. This means that 37 do not. Yet public-health experts say that more than 500,000 American farm workers suffer rates of infection comparable to Third World peasants because of the lack of sanitary facilities in the fields. Farm workers represented by the Migrant Legal Action Program in Washington have been trying since 1972 to get a federal standard. The states have had many years to provide proper sanitation facilities in the fields; there is no reason to expect that they have any more motivation to act now than before.

The farm workers have gone to court three times, and three times the U.S. District Court has ruled in their favor. They lost twice on appeal, and thought that they had a settlement the third time, but the federal government merely held hearings rather than issuing a rule. Now that the executive branch of government has failed again to act decisively, it may be time for congressional action. Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) is proposing legislation that would require providing the toilets, sinks and drinking water. Rep. George Miller (D-Martinez) will propose an amendment to the farm bill that would cut off federal subsidies to any growers who do not provide sanitary facilities.

It is ironic that word of the Brock decision comes at the same time that the Reagan Administration is preparing to help observe National Hispanic Heritage Week, starting Sunday. The nation's many farm workers of Hispanic heritage would be far better honored if the government were working to help eradicate disease from their legacy.

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