Millions of people across the world are sheltered in place. Doctors have advised us to leave our homes as infrequently as possible in order to flatten the curve of the COVID-19 and in some places fines have been imposed on those who disregard these orders. One of the few reasons that people are permitted out is to run to the local markets and grocery stores to buy food. Essential workers, including the farmworkers who plant, pick, and pack that food, are among the other group of people who are allowed to leave their houses. As the number of confirmed coronavirus cases and deaths rises, so do concerns about the stability and welfare of our food supply. The health and safety of these workers, as well as fear of a workforce shortage, are high on the list of these concerns.
Despite this, the White House has alluded to a possible lowered wage rate for guest workers brought into the country to do this work. This is one small group of immigrants who Trump appears to have exempted from his recent announcement that he will issue an executive order to halt immigration into the United States. This further underscores both the reliance on this labor and our willingness to pay them bottom of the barrel wages as they put their lives on the line to feed us. Both declarations are unconscionable.
Stay-at-home and shelter-in-place orders during this COVID-19 pandemic have shed light on the vital work of many of our least protected occupations, a group that includes farmworkers as well as grocery shelf stockers, restaurant workers, sanitation workers, and others. It has also made clear how we continue to overlook the indispensable role of the 2.5 million farmworkers whose work is vital and at the very beginning of our food chain. These people labor under hazardous working conditions that make them extremely vulnerable to the impacts of the novel coronavirus. These front-line workers make up 10% of migrant workers in the H-2A guest-worker visa program.
For more than 17 years, we have provided crucial legal services for migrant workers by organizing migrant workers in their communities, documenting abuse in guest-worker programs, and advocating for policies that reflect migrant workers’ voices and experiences. These years of experience, including Centro de los Derechos del Migrante’s (CDM) recently published report, “Ripe for Reform: Abuses of Agricultural Workers in the H-2A Visa Program,” have made it clear that farmworkers need more protections—not fewer.
By design, the H-2A guest-worker program, which ties workers to a single employer, subjects migrant farmworkers to hazardous working conditions. In the U.S., migrant workers tend to live in employer-provided barrack-style housing, typically with bunk beds close to each other. Workers depend on employers for transportation and travel to the fields by crowding into employer-provided vans or buses. Many lack access to hand-washing facilities and work shoulder-to-shoulder in the fields. The program’s existing flaws makes it practically impossible to follow CDC COVID-19 social distancing and sanitation recommendations, putting entire farmworker communities at risk.
Farmworkers’ wages are already among the lowest in the nation, which is why they face disproportionately high rates of poverty. The hourly wages of many temporary workers are often at or near the minimum wage. Despite their hazardous working conditions, farmworkers across the nation aren’t receiving hazard pay. Instead, H-2A agricultural guest workers continue to be generally ineligible for time-and-a-half compensation for their labor. H-2A workers frequently experience severe wage violations, as was the case of “Carlos,” who was profiled in Ripe for Reform. Carlos worked over 72 hours a week for a total pay of less than $100 a week. Reducing H-2A workers’ wages only heightens their vulnerability to economic coercion and abuse.
Importantly, workers who have called our migrant workers’ rights organizations since the pandemic began have shared that their employers have not supplied them with necessary resources such as masks and gloves to protect themselves against the virus. This is not an isolated instance. CDM’s report found that employers fail to provide necessary training and equipment such as gloves, knives, and waterproof boots for workers to carry out their jobs in a safe manner. Several workers reported that the burden to pay for supplies and tools needed for work fell on them because employers referred to these items as “personal use.” In theory and regulations, employers must assume these costs, but our experience shows that employers and the federal government are far from meeting workers’ basic health and safety needs—instead, they are focusing on cutting wages.
Let’s be clear: All farmworkers are negatively impacted by the lowering of H-2A agricultural workers’ wages. Lower wages lead to more susceptibility to abuse and trafficking. U.S. workers may be forced to accept lower wages and more abusive conditions as well, despite already being low-income. Cutting costs on H-2A workers thus means cutting costs on all front-line agricultural workers—an action that also risks the very food served on our tables across the U.S. Strengthening protections and wages for H-2A agricultural workers will benefit U.S. farmworkers and improve overall agricultural sector working conditions.
The answer to the turmoil faced by an essential industry is not to sacrifice protections for the front-line workers who carry out the jobs that make them more susceptible to acquiring and transmitting the virus. The federal government and states must strengthen protections for farmworkers who are in hazardous conditions by including them in stimulus packages to ensure they have all the tools and worker protections necessary. The administration must abandon its efforts to lower wage rates and weaken protections for workers.