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Farmworkers Are Essential, but Their Rights Don't Reflect That

Operating in conditions ripe for the spread of coronavirus, it's not a matter of if farmworkers will get sick—it's a matter of when.

April 17, 2020
Photo by @freckerfarms | Instagram

From the windows of my apartment in Brooklyn, I’ve been watching the odd things—a person in a full hazmat suit walking their dog—but also the constant things.

A huge FreshDirect delivery truck pulls up on my block at least once per day, and food delivery workers—hustling on foot, moped, or bicycle—continue to provide my and countless other neighborhoods in New York with their desired meals, despite the danger of coming into contact with so many households.

I'm incredibly grateful to live in a city where food delivery culture is already baked in. In places where that’s not the case, people have rushed out to grocery stores to sweep the shelves of almost all food—healthy, junk, and everything in between.

My stepdad, a bread company truck driver in rural South Texas, cannot unload his pallets fast enough at his delivery stops for queued-up and desperate customers. In fact, many store owners are asking him to put the bread behind their cash registers, along with the cigarettes and lotto tickets, so they can monitor and dispense their rations more calmly.

Both the FDA and CDC claim that food cannot be a vector of transmission for the coronavirus. But what if it was? Who would get blamed as the source of infection—the poultry worker, the vegetable picker, the dairy cow milker, or my stepdad?

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Top Comment:
“Although conditions and wages for farm workers have improved greatly in recent decades, they're still pretty medieval. For many of the itinerant workers even demanding the rights they supposedly have is out of the question because of predatory INS practices, lack of access to legal advice, poor English skills and just plain poverty. Far from being the gangsters and rapists some would paint them as, migrant farm workers are an essential cog in the US economy, doing a job far more important than most of the high paying jobs out there.”
— Smaug
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For over a century, farmworkers—whether migrants or citizens—and their rights have gone neglected by the federal government. You might be thinking: isn’t most of our food harvested by machines by this point? In reality, only certain crops such as corn or wheat can be harvested by machines, while more delicate fruits and vegetables must be picked by hand. Farmworkers' bodies are wracked by stoop labor, repetitive motion injuries, and exposure to toxic pesticides; their wages are drastically lagging behind that of industrial workers. They perform 10- to 14-hour workdays in extreme heat and cold (and even wildfire smoke) and often do not receive enough rest, water, food, and shade breaks.

Though certain farm operations have prioritized fair and humane treatment of their workers, others ignore farmworkers’ complaints of injury or illness until it’s too late, citing the pressure of harvest schedules and daily quotas, or simply not believing workers are in that much pain.

Even if medical aid is accessible, as a large percentage of farmworkers are undocumented, they hesitate to seek it out—not only because of cost or language barriers, but also possible apprehension and deportation. And even if they are working legally, harvesters are nervous about losing their jobs if they take time off for a doctor visit. For all of these reasons, farmworkers’ life expectancy holds at an average of 49 years versus the national average of 79 years.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed our broken, or very fragile, systems of care, and challenged us to notice and strengthen them. It has also flipped many things on their head—particularly the way we talk about who’s an “unskilled,” “low-skilled,” or “highly skilled” worker in this nation.

There is no such thing as an unskilled worker, and yet farmworkers and other low-wage food workers fall into that category all the time. And now, these “unskilled” workers (overwhelmingly immigrants) have been deemed “essential” in order to exempt them from shelter-in-place directives in agricultural hubs like California.

Codifying food harvesters as "essential" also allows the government to keep importing Latin American migrants into the country as seasonal agricultural workers despite any travel restrictions placed at our national borders. Instituted in 1986, this H-2A program (which employed 258,000 migrant workers in 2019, mostly from Mexico) is basically a reincarnation of the 1942-1964 Bracero Program, which similarly dispensed millions of guest-worker contracts. In both these programs, laborers are bound to one employer, and often experience inadequate wages, housing, and medical attention. A pandemic might make it especially apparent now, but the work of farmworkers has always been essential, and these people deserve their own shelters and systems of protection.

...the work of farmworkers has always been essential, and these people deserve their own shelters and systems of protection.

Regardless of racial background or immigration status, workers at the bottom of the food chain are experiencing conditions ripe for coronavirus contagion. As many don’t have their own cars, farmworkers continue to be transported to and from their work sites in crammed, claustrophobic vehicles. Despite numerous class-action lawsuits, a disturbing percentage of them still do not have basic toilet and hand-washing facilities in the fields. Food workers living in employer-provided housing or cheap motels—from citrus pickers in California to lobster processors in Maine—endure dilapidated, crowded quarters without proper ventilation, kitchens, or bathrooms. Some workers think the arrangements are so uncomfortable that they resort to camping outside or living in cars.

The most ironic thing? Those who work so hard to feed us go unfed themselves. Farmworkers’ and other food workers’ low wages mean that they cannot afford the very food they helped harvest, distribute, cook, or serve. Just because they’re around food all the time, doesn’t ensure their food security and adequate nutrition. It’s quite the opposite, especially amidst COVID-19 food business shutdowns and grocery store panic.

If we keep going this way, it’s not a matter of if food workers will get sick en masse and our food chain will be thrown into chaos; it’s a matter of when. We would not be prepared for the catastrophic shortages and delays that would occur if farmworkers in this country fell ill and couldn’t work anymore. There has always been a public health risk in the ways that our nation’s food industry has operated on the backs of under-compensated and overworked people, but COVID-19 throws this danger into greater relief.

Instead of waiting for the virus to erupt in food supply spaces, we should be joining in the fight for farm and food workers to be granted sick leave, health care and medical testing, sanitary housing, overtime/hazard pay, and safe working spaces and equipment. Various petitions, joint statements, and open letters have been created by farmworker advocacy organizations to read, circulate, and sign. Ultimately, pandemic-era rights turned permanent would be a long-awaited and welcome harvest.

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History professor; Author of GROUNDS FOR DREAMING.

2 Comments

ejm April 19, 2020
Thank you for this article. Supporting the UFW and other labor organizations focused on securing rights for all farm workers is vital and has always been.
 
Smaug April 18, 2020
Although conditions and wages for farm workers have improved greatly in recent decades, they're still pretty medieval. For many of the itinerant workers even demanding the rights they supposedly have is out of the question because of predatory INS practices, lack of access to legal advice, poor English skills and just plain poverty. Far from being the gangsters and rapists some would paint them as, migrant farm workers are an essential cog in the US economy, doing a job far more important than most of the high paying jobs out there.