Essential farmworkers put food on our tables. Where are their basic protections?
Pandemics like the coronavirus can have crippling effects on our food supply. The bottleneck starts from the processing plants. USA TODAY
Farmworkers have families to feed and bills to pay, but they can't pick crops from home. We need to protect and respect this valuable workforce.
I was 8 years old when I first joined my two older brothers and my mom to work moving irrigation pipes in the potato, alfalfa and wheat fields outside Blackfoot, Idaho. During the weekdays, we worked before and after school. During the weekends, it was mornings and late afternoons. The work was very hard and the weather was cold. Sick pay and health care were pipe dreams for most farmworkers.
Then, as now, these frontline workers were critical to maintaining America’s food supply.
My experiences led me to a career as a union organizer and in the 1980s I helped launch the farmworker women’s movement where we fought for the health, safety and security of all field laborers, as we constantly faced sexual assault, harassment and violence in the workplace, as well as domestic violence at home.
Today, as the COVID-19 pandemic rampages across the globe, it has been well-documented how the disease has disproportionately affected vulnerable communities and people of color.
Few groups have been adversely affected by COVID-19 more than farmworkers.
Dangerous working conditions
Farmworkers do not have the luxury of working from home. Sick pay and health care are the exception rather than the rule, yet picking strawberries or tomatoes makes social distancing almost impossible. There are poor, if any, facilities for handwashing and sanitization, and protective gloves and masks are seldom provided. Working long hours, often in grueling heat in remote areas far from stores and food banks, make it difficult to obtain basic necessities for their families. Domestic violence is on the rise and, despite designation as essential workers, many workers are undocumented and subject to the whims of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
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One worker, from Homestead, Florida, told me that her biggest concern is they are told not to go out in public. They have no health insurance. But the work does not stop. They have already been told that they have to continue working.
A single mom of three told me that due to school closures, she has to stay home with her kids, can’t work in her job in a nursery and can no longer afford rent.
Another pleaded that the government and large companies think about them and their families. What will the government and their employers do for them, the farmworkers? Will they be helped when it comes to feeding their children and paying their bills?
Two of the most important tools for combating the virus — social distancing and sheltering in place — are simply not options for the roughly 2.5 million farm laborers in this country. Unsurprisingly, farmworker infections are spiking. But despite being ill, many are unable to get medical attention and continue to show up for work.
Demanding dignity and fairness
Despite these desperate conditions, farmworkers, often led by women, are organizing. Leading the charge is my organization, Alianza Nacional de Campesinas, whose 15 member groups, operating from California to Florida, are demanding that these essential workers, without whom the food supply chain would inevitably collapse, get the support and assistance they need to survive the crisis physically and economically.
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At Alianza we have embarked on a multi-tiered effort to support these workers through organizing, public education and policy advocacy. Our member organizations are also delivering food, health and hygiene products like sanitizers and face masks, and providing assistance with rent and utilities.
Many years have passed since I toiled in the fields of Idaho and California, but I will always be a campesina — a farmworker woman. I have never witnessed a toll on the lives of the farmworker families like what we are seeing today. If nothing else, perhaps the devastating impacts of this virus will finally shed light on the critical role our migrant farmworkers play in keeping our country fed.
They deserve to be treated with fairness and dignity.
I hope when Americans from all backgrounds sit down for their next meal, they will think of these essential workers and rise in solidarity in the struggle for their human rights.