Amid COVID and Wildfires, Farmworkers Have Been Pushed to the Brink

We’ve seen this before — in 2018, when farmworkers in California labored as fires raged in the background, contaminating the air and creating inhospitable work conditions.

Fast forward two years, and again workers are in the fields against the backdrop of fires devastating the state. Making conditions worse is the COVID-19 pandemic, which is cutting through farmworker communities not only in California, but also in Michigan, Florida and Texas.

If the multiple news reports on the dire situation of farmworkers were meant to raise awareness, and perhaps even stun government officials to do something for some of the most exploited workers in this country, then it appears that they have failed.

Meanwhile, heroic farmworker organizations, from California to Florida, work tirelessly to pick up the slack that has been left by a government that declares farmworkers essential, but consistently fails to assure adequate work conditions and pay.

Therefore, in the name of justice for farmworkers, it’s imperative to support the efforts of frontline organizations that are leading efforts to mobilize some of the most necessary laborers who feed all of us.

Looking around the country shows many efforts led by farmworker groups that are doing the work that a functioning government ought to.

In California, Líderes Campesinas not only provides meals to immigrant families that have encountered economic hardship during the pandemic, but also offers masks for workers and information on the nature of COVID-19.

The Farmworker Association of Florida, similarly, has stepped up where the government has failed. As economic assistance hasn’t reached undocumented farmworker and migrant communities — the stimulus checks from earlier this year were given only to U.S. citizens — this Florida-based group delivers food to working families and distributes information about the pandemic to concerned community members.

Moving to Texas, it’s the Border Agricultural Workers Project that is assuming a critical role in the farmworker community and for the country’s food system that depends so heavily on migrant labor. Based in El Paso, this organization has created an emergency assistance fund for workers to draw upon in the event that a worker gets sick. And the group has had to tap into these resources, quarantining sick workers in local hotels for the duration of their illness, and even providing sick pay for the people who missed work.

As Carlos Marentes, founder of the Border Agricultural Workers Project, said about the government’s response, “Recommendations are made, but not mandates. And the most affected are those in poverty, agricultural workers and rural areas.”

Most of the demands from farmworker organizations are quite simple: provide personal protective equipment and adequate testing for workers, make employers notify laborers on the nature of COVID-19 and offer sick pay to those who miss work.

Allies to the cause for farmworker justice not only can support these organizations through providing financial assistance, perhaps in the form of donations, but also with pushing for legislative changes in their respective states.

In Vermont, following pressure from farmworker and immigrant rights activist organizations, the government stands poised to pass legislation that would provide a stimulus payment to everyone regardless of legal status.

California took a similar approach a few months ago, when it issued a one-time payment to undocumented workers in the state for $500.

As it is unlikely that such a proposal would pass currently at the federal level, efforts akin to what has taken place in Vermont and California could take place across the country, in each state where some essential workers are undocumented.

Still, while a stimulus check is better than nothing, more substantive changes are necessary to truly improve the lives of farmworkers.

To start, everyone can press legislators to amend the 1935 Wagner Act to extend the right to unionize to farmworkers. Currently, farmworkers have the right to collectively bargain in 11 states. Yet in most — with the exception of California, and as of 2019, New York — limitations on the right to strike leave workers without this valuable tool to improve their condition. Moreover, as many workers lack legal authorization and travel across state lines to work, the right to collective bargaining needs to apply to people regardless of immigration status and exist nationwide.

Without legal protections and strong unions, farmworkers are especially vulnerable when denouncing the strenuous work conditions that COVID-19 has forced upon them. “Many of our members have spoken up, have been testimonies to this, they’ve lost their jobs for speaking up,” said Irene de Barraicua, a spokeswoman of Líderes Campesinas.

There also should be more means for farmworkers, if they so choose, to access land. Certain groups are making strides in this area — for instance, the Agriculture and Land-Based Training Association, which trains migrant laborers how to become organic farmers. The federal government could better fund such efforts by expanding the allotment for beginning and historically marginalized farmers.

Additionally, workers without citizenship could be offered a pathway to it, or at least temporary work permits and a reprieve from deportation after acquiring loans to finance land purchases and become farmers. Not only would this benefit workers, but also the United States overall, especially as the average age of farmers ticks up steadily and young people are not replacing them.

Overall, estimates place the farmworker population somewhere between 2 to 3 million people, which is greater than the total number of farmers in the country. For farmworkers and for the rest of us, it would be wise to support public policies that see to it that a significant number of the landless farmworker population finds land and has a chance to grow food.

Farmworkers who do not desire to become landowners should also have the chance to receive a citizenship, which is part of the Farm Workforce Modernization Act of 2019 that passed the House but has made no headway in the Senate.

According to this piece of legislation, farmworkers who are currently undocumented, as well as their immediate family members, could acquire immediate legal status with the option to gain permanent residency after four years.

To treat migrant laborers as disposable, while they maintain a wealth of agricultural knowledge, jeopardizes our food system now and into the future.

Tying citizenship to farm work or becoming farmers may seem a pipe dream, particularly given the current political climate. Yet, Trump nearly granted permanent status to Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals recipients — youth below the age of 16 who arrived without legal status and to whom President Obama granted temporary work permits. Why not include farmworkers in a similar proposal? As comprehensive immigration reform may be difficult to achieve, perhaps it is more feasible to proceed group by group.

It’s also true that the political calculus surrounding immigration policy may change in the event of a Biden victory come November. Still, continuing to support farmworker groups and pushing legislators for change makes sense in the event of a Biden victory, as in the past, Democrats have not always been the most courageous when it comes to standing with undocumented workers.

What’s critical for all of us is to recognize that these proposals — from stimulus checks to citizenship — require more than raising awareness.

Real change requires partnering with frontline farmworker organizations, whether that means supporting their ongoing efforts at providing meals to workers, or acting in solidarity with their calls for collective bargaining rights and immigration reform.

More to the point, let’s put a stop to people hunching over vegetables, suffering in work conditions that no human being should endure. If we work on these proposals together, then perhaps we can abolish the existence of such conditions in the future. Farmworker organizations are leading the way in showing us the need for reform; the question is if the rest of us will stand with some of the most essential people who sacrifice so much to feed us daily.