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.