Despite newspaper and television accounts over the years, many Americans remain unware that a considerable segment of the nation's total farm production stems from the labors of field workers - often migrant workers.
The Reagan administration is finding itself caught up in the midst of a major controversy regarding the field workers: Should the federal government adopt a new federal standard relating to drinking water and sanitation conditions for hundreds of thousands of field hands throughout the United States?
The administration has adopted what would seem to be the most prudent course at this juncture, namely, that such a standard is both overdue and necessary. To that end, the administration is proposing a tentative new standard - proposed under the jurisdiction of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) - that would require that farms employing 11 or more field hands provide drinking water, hand-washing, and toilet facilities at locations near work sites. At the same time, the administration has given itself some political leeway by setting up a timetable for action under which any final standard that is eventually adopted need not be officially promulgated until February 1985. In other words, well after the November presidential election.
The tentative farm proposal appears in today's Federal Register, with a 45 -day period for comment.
Groups representing farmers are expected to hotly challenge the need for any national standard. Some dozen states already have standards of their own. California and Florida, for example, employ roughly one-half of the field workers that would be covered under a federal standard. Both states already have standards. So too do such states as Texas, Illinois, and New York.
OSHA should give special attention to the concerns of farmers. There would, for example, be major costs in applying a national standard: up to an estimated and fruit, would come under a federal standard, as well as some 765,000 field hands.
Would farmers - despite the new costs that would be necessary under such a standard - benefit in the long run, say, through better labor harmony on their farms? Such a question ought not be overlooked. In other words, short-term costs could pay off in the long run in stepped-up productivity.
Surely every laborer - whether on the farm or in the factory - should have access to such minimal facilities as a place to obtain clean drinking water. What now needs to be carefully resolved by OSHA is the extent to which a national standard is in fact necessary.