Farmworkers do life-sustaining work every single day. There are 2 to 3 million farmworkers who labor on farms, packing the sheds and greenhouses that dot the landscape of rural America. An estimated 900,000 of these workers are women. They harvest, pick, process, and pack the fruits and vegetables that we eat every single day. Despite their immense contribution to the world and the labor economy, farmworkers are among the lowest paid workers in our country. They have the fewest employment rights, they work under substandard conditions, and they are, essentially, invisible to most people in society.
National Farmworker Awareness Week is a week of activation and learning, a time to reflect on the many ways that farmworkers in the United States make our country stronger, not to mention richer. It is one week observed at the end of March to coincide with the great labor leader and farmworker advocate Cesar Chavez’s birthday. During this week, farmworkers are brought out of the shadows and celebrated by people of all walks of life across the United States. But farmworkers should be celebrated every day, and, like all workers, they should have the same basic protections that are needed to keep them safe, healthy, and able to thrive.
Farmworkers toil under the sun, laboring under backbreaking conditions. They are incredible and indispensable. However, even though advocates have been organizing and pushing for improved conditions for agricultural workers for decades, conditions have not significantly improved. Under federal law, children can still work in agriculture, with limited restrictions, as young as the age of 12. Women suffer rampant sexual harassment. Adults and children are sprayed with harmful pesticides that result in short-term and long-term health consequences. In particular, pesticide exposure can cause grave reproductive health issues that affect farmworkers’ reproductive organs, lead to miscarriages, and cause birth defects.
And, in a public health crisis like the one we are facing today with the global COVID-19 pandemic, farmworkers are among the most vulnerable groups in our society, placed at high risk of widespread illness and even death. Farmworkers’ current living and working conditions are deplorable at best, and now potentially deadly given the limited options for taking preventive measures against COVID-19. Many farmworkers in our country still do not have bathroom and hand-washing facilities in the fields despite the fact that federal law requires it. Thousands of farmworkers in our country live in shared living quarters that are often overcrowded; at times they’re not even provided their own bed to sleep in. This makes social distancing or isolation almost impossible. And if they live in a migrant camp or an encampment set up by homeless farmworkers, the risk of someone getting sick and possibly spreading the virus to many people at one time is a nightmare waiting to happen.
There are many reasons for farmworkers’ vulnerability to widespread public health issues, and the circumstances are not new. Farmworkers have always been susceptible to illness because of the squalid conditions they are forced to live in and work under, especially for those who are migrating workers. Even though there are laws on the books that prescribe the conditions for farmworker housing and labor conditions, many employers and recruiters ignore these laws because they know that few farmworkers will ever complain.
It is understandable that workers do not speak out. Farmworkers in our country live in poverty, with men being paid $16,000 a year and women being paid just $11,000 a year on average. In addition, our broken immigration system creates a muzzle for many workers because more than half of them are undocumented, and the majority do not know their rights or who can help them if they experience a workplace problem. Many workers across the country fear complaining about anything because they need their jobs to feed their families and worry that complaining will result in retaliation, such as being fired, blocked from getting jobs with other employers, or potentially being reported to immigration or other law enforcement officials.
These are particularly scary times for all of us. There are many uncertainties due to the wide spread of COVID-19, which has taken and altered lives across the globe. During these difficult times, it becomes even more important that we do not ignore the most vulnerable among us. In addition to the health risks farmworkers face in a pandemic, the reality is that there are many rights that most farmworkers still do not have, like guaranteed paid sick leave or unemployment insurance.
Many farmworkers do not have the option to stay home. If they get sick or if one of their relatives gets sick, taking a day off of work could easily result in them losing their job and being replaced by another worker. Farmworkers earn so little that it is unlikely they have a nest egg that would allow them to go one day, or even longer, without pay.
Even if mandatory shelter-in-place rules are issued by local, state, or federal authorities, it is probable that farmworkers will still be required to work by their employers, forcing them to choose between abiding by the mandate or going to work. It is also very possible that even if their employers require them to work despite orders to close down, there will be no authorities who are monitoring things to enforce the order and allow these workers to stay at home.
There is a threat that farmworkers, quite literally, will not survive if measures are not taken to enforce existing laws that have been passed to protect them. Equally important, any new laws that are passed to address this crisis must be extended to protect farmworkers as well.
Farmworkers and their work are valuable. Just like all workers, they should be treated with dignity, respect, and care at all times. During this time when lives are on the line and measures are being taken to ensure that workers across industries are being taken care of, farmworkers should also be cared for physically, mentally, and financially. As we face a new normal, we have the opportunity to right historical wrongs that have left whole groups of people at risk of a host of inequities and problems. Now is the time to cure some of the issues confronting farmworkers for their good, and for the good of all of us.