In the context of the European Green Deal, the EU has undertaken to reduce by half the use of chemical pesticides and the risks associated with them by 2030. Frans Timmermans, executive vice-president of the European Commission, stresses that the Green Deal measures “point to a new and better balance of nature, food systems and biodiversity; to protect our people’s health and well-being, and at the same time to increase the EU’s competitiveness and resilience.” This is all well and good, but what about protecting the health and well-being of workers in the agricultural sector?

It seems that the European environmental ambitions have yet to take root at national level. By way of example, the Bulgarian Minister of Agriculture has authorised the use of ethoprophos, an insecticide banned for use in Europe. In France, a government decree issued on 5 February 2021 authorises the temporary use of plant protection products containing imidacloprid or thiamethoxam (better known to the public as “bee killers”), products officially banned in France and the EU since 2018. They represent a risk not only to the environment, but also to the health of workers in the agricultural sector – as stated in the ruling of the Rennes Court of Appeal of 6 January 2021. Beyond recognising Nutéra's responsibility for the suicide of one of its employees, this decision also highlights the risks incurred by workers exposed to these products.

This was not the first time Nutéra had been sentenced for exposing workers to plant protection products. In 2016, the company was found  guilty by the French Social Security Court (TASS) for exposing workers to dichlorvos, a chemical contained in the insecticide Nuvan Total. Although the use of this product has been banned in France since 2007, workers were still exposed to it between 2009 and 2012. As a result of this exposure, at least three workers developed multiple chemical hypersensitivity syndrome (MCS), making them unfit for work and ultimately leading to their dismissal. One of them was a direct colleague of the worker who committed suicide a few years later.

Not only did the company not protect its employees, but it even dismissed them after their health deteriorated. This way of doing things has created a toxic environment for the workers, both physically and mentally.  In addition to suffering the physical consequences of exposure to these toxic products, the Rennes Court of Appeal recognised the existence of “economic stress” weighing on the company and consequently on its employees, in connection with their long-term employment prospects. According to the Court, this difficult employment context and the bad working conditions were constituent factors in the suicide of the worker referred to above.

These court decisions are important, as they remind us of a company's responsibility to prevent exposure to toxic products, while at the same time illustrating the consequences when this is not the case. Although these decisions “only” refer to four workers, exposure is the daily bread of many workers in the agricultural sector. A report published in 2016 by the French Agency for Food, Environmental and Occupational Health & Safety (ANSES) stresses that these workers are the first victims of pesticides, and especially of plant protection products.

Photo credit: narongcp