Workplace Fairness

Menu

Skip to main content

  • print
  • decrease text sizeincrease text size
    text

Migrant farmworkers are headed north from Florida, afraid of COVID-19 but with little choice

Share this post

Florida is hitting one daily high in positive coronavirus tests after another, and now some of the people in the hardest-hit communities are heading out for other states. Not wealthy snowbirds, but migrant farmworkers, who follow growing seasons north for the summer.

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), which fights for better wages and working conditions for farmworkers in Immokalee, Florida, and beyond, has been sounding the alarm for months. The conditions the workers face, “the result of generations of grinding poverty and neglect, will act like a superconductor for the transmission of the coronavirus,” CIW co-founder Greg Asbed wrote in The New York Times in early April. “And if something isn’t done—now—to address their unique vulnerability, the men and women who plant, cultivate and harvest our food will face a decimating wave of contagion and misery in a matter of weeks, if not days.“ That was April. The Florida Department of Health didn’t even start seriously testing these communities until early May.

While the Coalition of Immokalee Workers did what it could by spreading information and working with the growers in its Fair Food Program to help protect workers with things like hand-washing stations and grocery delivery (Doctors Without Borders has been helping with response), it hasn’t been enough to undo the neglect and irresponsible leadership at the government level.

“You don’t want those folks mixing with the general public if you have an outbreak,” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said last week, perhaps seeking to illustrate not only how irresponsible he is, but how vicious and dehumanizing he is as well.

As a result of that failure to lead, farming communities in Florida have alarming rates of COVID-19. Collier County, where Immokalee is, has a positive test rate about double the state level, and, the Times reports, “Lake Worth, a suburban Palm Beach County community of about 39,000 that has a large population of Guatemalan and Mexican immigrants, has 1,367 confirmed cases, slightly more than St. Petersburg, a city six times larger.”

The danger of the virus and the economic pressure to follow the jobs—low-paying and often abusive though they may be—is weighing heavily on workers. 

”We’re afraid,” Angelina Velásquez, a single mother, told the Times. “But where am I supposed to go? There is no work here.” Other workers are also making the very difficult decision to stay put. “I’m trying to take care of myself—for my wife, for my baby,” one said.

These migrant workers are in a no-win situation they didn’t create. And while it’s a systemic problem, the people who lead and benefit from that system are treating the workers as essentially disposable. This time, that may lead to the coronavirus spreading even further.

This blog originally appeared at Daily Kos on June 18, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson has been a Daily Kos contributing editor since December 2006. Full-time staff since 2011, currently assistant managing editor.


Share this post

Undocumented Farmworkers Are Refusing Covid Tests for Fear of Losing Their Jobs

Share this post

As states reopen for business, the coronavirus is exploding among America’s 2.5 million farmworkers, imperiling efforts to contain the spread of the disease and keep food on the shelves just as peak harvest gets underway.

The figures are stark. The number of Covid-19 cases tripled in Lanier County, Ga., after one day of testing farmworkers. All 200 workers on a single farm in Evensville, Tenn., tested positive. Yakima County, Wash., the site of recent farmworker strikes at apple-packing facilities, now boasts the highest per capita infection rate on the West Coast. Among migrant workers in Immokalee, Fla.—who just finished picking tomatoes and are on their way north to harvest other crops—1,000 people are infected.

The growing numbers reflect the lack of safety guidelines for workers who labor shoulder to shoulder in the fields, travel side by side in vans, and sleep by the dozens in bunks and barracks. On June 2, the CDC and OSHA announced recommendations to help protect agricultural workers, following in the footsteps of WashingtonOregon and California. But there is still no nationally coordinated, mandatory response or tracking of the disease among farmworkers. 

The spike in cases is, in part, a result of increased testing. But that points to a new danger emerging that could make outbreaks even harder to contain: Some farmworkers are refusing to be tested for Covid-19.

Eva Galvez is a physician at the Virginia Garcia Memorial Health Center, a clinic that serves 52,000 mostly Latino patients in the agricultural regions that cradle Portland, Ore. When the clinic discovered in April that Latinos were testing positive for Covid-19 at twenty times the rate of other patients, Galvez pinpointed farmworker communities as one of the hotspots. So she worked with the Oregon Law Center to secure statewide hygiene and social distancing rules. (The rules are set to expire October 24.) Provisions include  enhancing safety in employer-provided housing, which In These Times has found is fueling outbreaks among farmworkers nationwide. 

But Galvez has other worries now. “Although our clinic has plenty of capacity to test, many people won’t want to be tested,” she says. “Because if they’re positive they can’t go to work.”

“The virus is a scarlet letter,” says Reyna Lopez, executive director of Pineros y Campesinos Unidos de Noroeste (PCUN). The 7,000-member farmworker union is based in Marion County, Ore., which ranks third in the state for coronavirus cases per capita.

“Not only is there no paid leave [if you can’t work], but no job,” Lopez says. “That tells farmworkers they don’t have an incentive to tell people that they are feeling sick. The biggest fear is not necessarily the virus itself; it’s [not] being able to provide for family.” 

It is an undeniable crisis. But America is reaping what it has sown. Decades of anti-immigrant policies will make the coronavirus extraordinarily difficult to contain for a vulnerable population which has been forced deep in the shadows. 

As workers in an industry with few unions, a lack of basic worker protections, and a workforce that is estimated to be at least 48% undocumented immigrants, farmworkers have many reasons to fear losing their jobs. Most lack health insurance, sick leave, unemployment insurance, and legal status, and they support extended families here and abroad on poverty wages. Testing and social distancing guidelines may help prevent illness, but cannot prevent job loss. Personal protection is no substitute for social protections.

Trump administration policies have exacerbated the situation. Irene de Barraicua of Líderes Campesinas, a California-based farmworker organization for women, says some farmworkers are not seeking health care because of the “public charge” rule that threatens to deny green cards to those who rely on public services. H2A workers, who comprise over a quarter million workers whose temporary visas are tied to their employers, could be deported if they lose their jobs. Even the “essential worker” letters that some farmers provided to undocumented workers to show ICE in the hope of preventing arrests during the pandemic have backfired, Irene says.Workers interpreted the letter as a sign that raids would increase.

Now the coronavirus has upended agricultural production in ways that further threaten jobs. 

The Salinas Valley in California is nicknamed “America’s Salad Bowl” for its 1.4 million acres of farmland that grow everything from artichokes to zucchini. But this year lettuce, strawberriescauliflower, and spinach are rotting in fields as agribusinesses unable to pivot from institutional to consumer sales cut their losses by cutting workers.

Sinthia, 40, whose last name is being withheld to protect herself, her family and her job, is from Guanajuato, Mexico, and supports two children, her mother, a quadraplegic sister, and a brother who is deaf, mute and blind. Before Covid-19, Sinthia, who is a member of Líderes Campesinas, packed boxes of broccoli for up to 62 hours a week in Monterey County. Now her hours have been sliced in half. The restaurants and schools that purchased produce from her employer, PGM Packing, are shuttered due to the coronavirus. “There is no market, no place to sell, no orders,” Sinthia says.

One hundred miles to the southeast, it is the workforce that has been halved at a vineyard in Kern County, where Paola, 30, works. Twenty of 40 workers were fired in order to meet social distancing guidelines. “There is more pressure to get the work done now,” Paola says. A former teacher from Sinaloa, Mexico, Paola says her pay is the same but her expenses have increased. Her two school-aged children eat all their meals at home now and she has to support her recently unemployed parents. Out of fear of infecting them, Paola quit her second, night-shift job at a pistachio packing facility when a co-worker tested positive. “It was worrisome, scary, stressful,” Paola says.

“It’s a very desperate situation. They don’t have food. Many are being laid off,” says de Barraicua . “Farmers are deciding to let their crops rot. They’re also letting the workers rot.”

Farmworkers also fear they could be stigmatized by co-workers and that bosses could fire their entire crew, which often includes family and friends from their hometown. 

“We are hearing from advocates that workers would enter ‘death pacts’ where if they become sick they keep it to themselves because the entire camp will shut down,” says Lori Johnson, managing attorney at the farmworker unit of Legal Aid of North Carolina. 

Rebeca Velazquez is a former farmworker and an organizer with Mujeres Luchadores Progresistas, an organization for women farmworkers based in Woodburn, Ore. One member, she says, was having a coughing fit at work when the owner of the farm walked by and told her to leave. Her supervisor said she needed to get tested for Covid-19. Two days later he told her not to bother: the entire crew of 30 workers had been laid off because of her. Another woman, Rebeca says, was shunned by co-workers upon returning to the workplace after being very ill with Covid-19. She left to work elsewhere and is keeping her illness a secret out of fear of discrimination.

Luis Jimenez, 38, a dairy worker in Avon, New York, says workers are in a bind. They have been told if they get sick and don’t say anything they will get fired. But if they do say something they may still lose their job. “The [bosses] don’t have a plan if workers get infected,” says Luis. “No plan to quarantine, no plan to feed them, no plan to take them to the hospital.” 

An explosion in cases among vulnerable farmworkers could overwhelm rural healthcare facilities and threaten the national food supply. The thin plastic line now separating workers in the fields is not enough to halt a pandemic or cure a diseased system. Increased protections for workers—including paid sick leave, unemployment compensation, and affordable housing and healthcare—are essential if the spread of Covid-19 is to be curbed.

“We don’t want to be called essential.” Sinthia says. “Show us with proof that we are essential. We need better working conditions, better living conditions, a better life.”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on June 19, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Michelle Fawcett has reported for Truthout, The Nation and The Progressive.

About the Author: Arun Gupta is author of Bacon as a Weapon of Mass Destruction (forthcoming from The New Press).


Share this post

The Food Industry’s Next Covid-19 Victims: Migrant Farmworkers

Share this post

Outbreaks have begun at farms around the country, thanks in large part to crowded employer-provided housing.

AVON, N.Y.—Luis Jimenez, 35, works 66 hours a week tending hundreds of calves at a dairy in upstate New York. He sends $800 home to his parents and eight siblings in Oaxaca, Mexico, every two weeks. “We want to build a house,” he says by phone. “I want my brothers and sisters to go to college.” A calf lows loudly in the background.

Jimenez is president of Alianza Agricola, an advocacy group led by migrant farmworkers. He says dozens of undocumented farmworkers in his organization are particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus. “If one guy gets infected, it’s easy to pass to the others because they live in the same house and come in the same car when they go to work,” he says.

The most widespread outbreak in the food system appears to be among meatpacking workers, with 15,800 documented cases linked to 193 plants, as of May 21. Wired magazine says Covid-19 thrives in the plants because of long hours, crowded workstations, “aggressive ventilation systems” and cold temperatures. But outbreaks on farms are increasing, and they disproportionately affect migrant farmworkers—at least 48% of whom are undocumented.

In These Times identified at least 349 coronavirus cases at 13 farm and agricultural sites in four states. According to farmworkers, medical personnel, advocates, lawyers and media reports, the reason lies in shared migrant housing.

Jimenez and other farmworkers live in so-called congregate living settings, also known as labor camps. Growers usually provide housing for migrants, who may travel thousands of miles for jobs. Jimenez says, on one dairy farm, “Six guys live in a small room, in three bunk beds.” It’s not a house, he says. “It’s a room attached to the farm office.”

Coronavirus outbreaks in upstate New York have hit a dairy, a nursery and a 32-acre greenhouse. At the greenhouse, run by Green Empire Farms, half of its 340 workers who tend tomatoes and strawberries tested positive, one of the state’s biggest outbreaks. According to local health officials, the grower-provided housing had four workers to a room and two to a bed in motels.

Farmworkers “are scared they will get infected and die,” Jimenez says. “We don’t have health insurance. We don’t have access to medical service.”

Woodburn is the epicenter of the Covid-19 outbreak in Oregon—and headquarters to Pineros y Campesinos Unidos de Noroeste, a 7,000-member farmworker union. “Our members work with dozens, sometimes hundreds [of workers], out in the fields, shoulder to shoulder,” says executive director Reyna Lopez, whose parents were migrant farmworkers. “They sometimes live 25 to a house. When one gets it, it spreads like wildfire.”

In central California’s Monterey County, home to the fertile Salinas Valley (with 1.4 million acres of farmland), The Mercury News reports that “unsanitary, overcrowded conditions” in congregate housing are “the perfect recipe for an outbreak.” Farmworkers account for 40% of Monterey County’s 308 confirmed cases as of May 12.

North Carolina has seen outbreaks on five farms with congregate housing. Lori Johnson, managing attorney at the farmworker unit of Legal Aid of North Carolina, says migrant farmworkers “are sharing bathrooms, they are sharing kitchens, the number of bathrooms is low.” Under state law, agribusinesses can cram workers into dorms with as little as 50 square feet per person, one shower for every 10 people and one toilet for every 15.

“The likeliness of everyone in a camp contracting Covid-19 is very high,” says Amy Elkins, an outreach worker for advocacy group NC Farmworkers Project. “The majority of our workers live in barracks with up to 120 workers sharing approximately four toilets and four showers.”

In Salem County, N.J., 59 migrant workers tested positive on one farm, where up to 100 male farmworkers reportedly live in dorms. At an orchard with employer-provided housing in Douglas County, Wash., half of the 71 farmworkers tested positive.

Early indications suggest more outbreaks among farmworkers go unreported. Former dairy worker Wilmer Jimenez, 26, organizes workers on dozens of farms in western New York with the Rural and Migrant Ministry. “The health department confirmed three farm outbreaks. … But I spoke to a lot of other farmworkers who were sick,” he says. In Yakima County, Wash., The Seattle Times reports 70 “farm and fruit-packing workers” have tested positive, but the Yakima Health District estimates about 400 total cases among agriculture workers. In May, workers at six fruit processing facilities in the county went on strike after coworkers fell ill with Covid-19, citing more than 200 health and safety violations.

With 3 million migrant and seasonal farmworkers traveling the United States in the coming months, overcrowded housing may take a serious toll.

“We are some of the most essential workers in the country,” says Sinthia, an immigrant from Guanajuato, Mexico, and one of 60,000 farmworkers who harvest the Salinas Valley during the summer peak. (Sinthia requested anonymity to protect herself, her family and her job.) “Now we have the emotional strain of having to go to work … but always thinking about what will happen with this virus.” 

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on June 2, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Michelle Fawcett has reported for Truthout, The Nation and The Progressive.

About the Author: Arun Gupta is author of Bacon as a Weapon of Mass Destruction (forthcoming from The New Press).


Share this post

Trump deems farmworkers ‘essential’ but not safety rules for them. That could threaten the food supply.

Share this post

The Trump administration has deemed the millions of people who are cutting lettuce, picking cherries, packing peaches and otherwise getting food from farm to table to be “essential workers” but is doing little to keep them healthy during the pandemic.

The lack of federal action has left state and industry leaders scrambling to shield their farmworkers from the coronavirus. As harvest season ramps up, farmers across several major produce states have installed more hand-washing stations, instructed workers to keep their distance and provided face masks — but those efforts have been inconsistent and largely voluntary.

Farmworkers have long lived in the shadows of the American economy, an itinerant community that includes low-income citizens, about 250,000 legal guest workers from Mexico and Central America and hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants who might travel from farm to farm with the changing harvest seasons. Now, labor advocates are warning that continuing to ignore this vulnerable population not only threatens lives but endangers the food supply.

“We’re very concerned that the worst is yet to come,” said Bruce Goldstein, president of Farmworker Justice, an advocacy group. “With the limited protections that are available, we’re afraid that there’s going to be a substantial increase in Covid-19 cases among farmworkers.”

Goldstein and others have watched a crisis unfold in meatpacking plants, with dozens of facilities shuttered due to outbreaks that have sickened thousands and killed at least 20. But labor conditions on farms are less actively regulated than meat plants, in part because there are far more farms to police and very small farming operations are exempt from certain safety rules.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued recommended guidelines that cover a range of critical employment sectors, including farm labor. But the Trump administration has not made the guidelines mandatory, as the Department of Labor is empowered to do on an emergency basis. And the CDC has not released recommendations specific to field workers like it did for meatpacking employees as that industry fell into chaos in recent weeks.

Since March, advocates like the United Farm Workers have been urging federal agencies and states to make existing Covid-19 recommendations enforceable and to go further, ensuring benefits like paid sick leave, access to health care and a major revamp of housing standards that would allow for social distancing.

The CDC referred inquiries about workplace requirements to the Labor Department, which said in a statement, “Because of the enforcement authorities already available to it and the fluid nature of this health crisis, OSHA does not believe that a new regulation, or standard, is appropriate at this time.”

Labor officials have said they have all the enforcement tools necessary to ensure worker safety. Employees can file complaints with the agency if they believe employers are violating the law, kicking off an investigation that can last months.

In addition, officials have said, the department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration plans to enforce existing standards such as its safety rules regarding respiratory protection and bloodborne pathogens. But safety advocates have complained that those standards don’t address the risks posed by infectious illnesses like Covid-19, and that undocumented workers won’t feel comfortable making complaints.

American fruit and vegetable growers, who are heavily reliant on migrant and immigrant labor, are taking note of what’s happening in meatpacking and processing plants as they try to avoid a similar catastrophe.

“We have a vested interest in the health and well-being of our workers,” said Chuck Obern, owner of C&B Farms in Clewiston, Fla., who hires more than 200 people each season to tend to a large number of labor-intensive crops, including kale, bok choy and a variety of herbs.

When Obern first learned about the coronavirus spreading in the U.S., his operation started communicating with workers about CDC’s advice on hand-washing and social distancing. He also started sanitizing the bus that transports his crew from field to field every day, a common point where workers are often not able to keep their distance from one another. Obern, like most growers, doesn’t think regulations are needed because the vast majority of farmers will act proactively on their own.

“We would be stupid to not care and not do everything we can to keep our workers as healthy as possible,” Obern said, noting that most farm work is highly skilled and difficult to master. “If Covid did come in and run through our crew, who would pick our crops?”

Relying on growers to voluntarily take precautions doesn’t satisfy advocates for farmworkers, who prefer to see consistent, enforceable standards that all farm operations are required to meet.

“There’s no clear rules that apply to agriculture around social distancing,” said Edgar Franks, political director for Familias Unidas Por La Justicia, an independent union representing berry workers in northwest Washington state. “It’s been almost two months and there’s been nothing done to protect farmworkers.”

Farms suffer outbreaks

The threat of widespread outbreaks like those that have struck meat plants is not a hypothetical concern. There are already outbreaks involving farmworkers in several states. In New York, one of the largest coronavirus clusters in the state is a greenhouse farm where 169 out of 340 workers have tested positive. In Washington, one large orchard recently revealed that more than 50 of the 70 workers it had tested for Covid-19 tested positive, including many who were asymptomatic. Both the New York and Washington farms began testing workers after some showed symptoms. In North Carolina, a strawberry grower temporarily closed after eight workers tested positive. In Monterey County, Calif., a major berry growing area, nearly one in four coronavirus cases is an agricultural worker, according to local officials.

Most farmworkers live in close quarters, often sleeping in dormitory-style rooms with several bunk beds. They travel from field to field on tightly-packed buses and often stick together for errands like buying groceries or going to the bank.

“It makes it impossible to observe recommendations of social distancing,” said Gerardo Reyes Chavez, an experienced farm worker and organizer for the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in Immokalee, Fla., an area known as the nation’s tomato capital.

It can also be difficult to maintain CDC’s recommendation of six feet of distance in the fields, depending on which crop is being harvested. Workers who pick tomatoes, for example, usually pick fruit into their own individual buckets and then run their haul to a common collection point, with speed being important since they are paid by the pound.

“You cannot be timing with everyone to see when they are bringing their bucket,” Chavez said. “They are all running.”

“It feels almost laughable,” he said, because the nature of the work does not allow social distancing.

It can be even harder for workers to keep their distance in packing operations, where it’s not uncommon for them to be placed elbow-to-elbow sorting and arranging fresh produce to be shipped out.

Labor advocates are always trying to get policymakers — and consumers — to care more about working conditions on farms, but they say there’s a new layer of urgency with Covid-19 cases now on the rise in rural areas.

“What we are going to see is a food crisis unfolding on top of a pandemic, which is the worst combination,” Chavez said.

A neglected workforce

The lack of standards for farm-worker safety reflects a long history of neglect of the workforce and the country’s inability to come to grips with its reliance on undocumented labor.

About 2.5 million farm workers are employed by farmers and ranchers in the U.S. — and the government estimates that about half are undocumented. About three-quarters are immigrants and most come from Mexico, according to data gathered by the Agriculture Department. They also make very little money: The average total income for an individual farm worker ranges from $15,000 to $17,499.

In recent years, a growing number of agriculture laborers have been H-2A foreign guest workers who have been granted temporary visas to work in seasonal jobs, such as berry or tomato picking. Farmers have increasingly struggled with finding enough workers to bring in harvests — especially as the Trump administration has cracked down on undocumented immigrants — and the industry has relied on the H-2A visa program to ease the persistent labor shortage on farms. In 2019, 242,762 H-2A visas were issued by the Labor Department, an increase of roughly 67 percent since 2008. The vast majority are from Mexico.

When the coronavirus was first spreading throughout the U.S., farmers were deeply worried about not being able to hire H-2A workers because embassies where visa application interviews take place were shut down across the world.

In order to keep the flow of foreign farmworkers steady, the federal government in March eased application requirements and also allowed farmers to hire from the pool of foreign workers currently in the U.S. And the USDA and DOL will publish information about H-2A workers with expiring contracts that may be allowed to transfer to other agriculture employers.

“Ensuring minimal disruption for our agricultural workforce during these uncertain times is a top priority for this administration,” Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said in a statement. “President Trump knows that these workers are critical to maintaining our food supply and our farmers and ranchers are counting on their ability to work.”

But while the departments that oversee the H-2A program have made it easier for farmers to hire help, the OSHA worker safety watchdog has taken no action to protect the workers by requiring that producers implement emergency safety measures.

Meanwhile, though farmers and ranchers have been major beneficiaries of billions of dollars in aid for lost markets, farmworkers on the front lines have been almost completely left out of any of the coronavirus aid packages.

Major industry groups favor voluntary standards, though some have lobbied the government to help the industry procure personal protective equipment like masks and gloves.

In a recent letter to House and Senate leadership, a large coalition of produce industry groups pushed back against accusations that growers haven’t done enough to protect workers, calling them “unfounded.”

“With every stage of the emerging Covid-19 crisis, our industry has worked hard to embrace all public health advice for social distancing, personal and facility hygiene, face coverings and more,” the groups wrote.

But they also expressed some worry about procuring enough PPE for their labor force, noting that “farmers have some reserves of these supplies but as this crisis lingers, we are concerned about the ability to secure supplies in the future.”

Some of the largest produce growers in the country have dramatically changed their operations in recent weeks to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, recognizing it as an existential threat.

But these companies have more resources than most, in some cases going above and beyond CDC guidance. Farmworker advocates at every level are urging state and federal policymakers to be more aggressive and impose enforceable standards to ensure operations of all sizes are keeping their workforces healthy.

“We’re hoping that some agricultural employers that have not yet woken up to the reality are going to realize that their business is in danger if their workers get ill,” Goldstein said.

A patchwork response

Even the most progressive states are struggling to figure out how to prevent the spread of Covid-19 among this vulnerable class of workers.

In Washington, which is a major producer of tree fruit like apples and cherries, farmworker unions and advocates sued the state last month to press for mandatory Covid-19 protections.

State officials initially produced fact sheets with suggestions for how to prevent the spread of Covid-19 on farms and in packing houses, but advocates criticized the documents as confusing and unenforceable. Labor groups want the guidelines to be legally required, so if workers raise concerns they have clear requirements to point to.

“The agencies aren’t big enough nor do they have resources to be out there protecting workers,” said Joe Morrison, an attorney with Columbia Legal Services, a firm representing farmworker groups in their litigation.

Even though Gov. Jay Inslee has been sympathetic to the farmworkers’concerns, there are no easy answers. It’s not just workplaces but housing, churches, buses and everything in between that present a possible risk for spreading the coronavirus in the agriculture industry.

Since the lawsuit, the state’s labor and health departments have proposed some emergency rules for agriculture aimed at preventing the spread of Covid-19, but they have not yet been finalized.

The proposals include a temporary ban on the use of bunk beds in guest worker housing to allow for more distance between laborers, something that agriculture industry groups have strongly pushed back on, arguing that it’s expensive and unworkable.

“They’ve at least taken action here,” Morrison said. “They care, but the feds haven’t done anything.”

The Wenatchee Valley, a large fruit growing hub, is already hosting thousands of H-2A guest workers to help manage its extensive orchards and other farms, but within weeks as many as 20,000 more workers are expected to arrive as the harvest kicks off in earnest, which means worker housing is soon expected to become even more densely populated.

“You have to do something,” said Morrison. “It can’t just be business as usual.”

In Oregon, state agencies have imposed sweeping new requirements on farms, including a temporary ban on the use of bunk beds to try to prevent the spread of the virus.

California, which supplies much of the country’s vegetables, has been the most active in extending assistance to farmworkers, who have been given two weeks of paid sick leave from an executive order from Gov. Gavin Newsom. State lawmakers are currently debating legislation that would provide laborers with hazard pay, child care help and temporary housing to prevent crowding.

Hernan Hernandez, executive director of the California Farmworker Foundation, said that for the most part, farmers in the state have been working hard to ensure there are limited outbreaks, like taking steps to improve housing circumstances.

Some farmers with employees that have tested positive have rented hotel rooms for them to recover in isolation where they receive medical checkups and meals delivered, he said. Other producers are exploring renting additional housing so that workers are not living in such close quarters.

But he said the real trouble starts when shifts end. Labor organizers have had difficulty convincing workers to comply with distancing and sanitizing recommendations, in part because the workers have been hearing mixed messages from the U.S. and Mexican governments about the seriousness of the pandemic.

“In all these little rural communities, life is going on as normal,” he said, which he’s very concerned about, because numerous farmworkers testing positive would create “chaos” for the food system — potentially leading to higher prices and shortages at grocery stores.

‘Our well-being is tied together’

The recent havoc in the meat sector stands as a cautionary tale, farm industry leaders say.

The meat business has been upended. Nearly 50 percent of the nation’s pork production has dropped off due to dozens of major processing plants shutting down. Beef and chicken processing is also way down as plants shutter or slow down output as more workers fall ill. Industry experts say those closures, which have led to meat shortages, could have been avoided if the federal government had a plan in place before the virus spread.

“An outbreak can have devastating consequences on the average consumer’s life in the United States,” Hernandez said. At the supermarket, shortages could emerge very quickly from disruptions to the farm economy because workers have only a short window to harvest, package and ship perishable produce.

Without consistent requirements or standards to protect frontline workers, the extent to which growers are enacting Covid-19 protections depends on the leadership and resources of each business.

Larger produce companies have posted videos online to tout their prevention programs. In California’s Salinas Valley, known as America’s Salad Bowl, Taylor Farms, one of the largest leafy greens growers in the country, said it’s taking the temperatures of employees before they start their shifts. The company said it also redesigned how its lettuce harvest crews work so laborers can maintain a distance instead of working in close proximity like they normally would.

In Florida, protections vary considerably operation to operation. At behemoths like Lipman Produce, for example, one of the country’s largest growers of tomatoes, field workers have been spaced out and had their breaks staggered to avoid congregating. There are now more buses transporting workers so they can maintain social distancing as they’re shuttled between harvest locations. The company has even started providing food in some cases so workers can avoid the grocery store.

But not all growers have gone to such lengths, and farmworker advocates have been vocal in calling for enforceable standards and far more resources.

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers, one of the best-organized farm worker groups in the country, for example, has repeatedly asked Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis to set up a field hospital in Immokalee since that community does not have one.

State officials have so far not complied, arguing that hospitals in nearby cities are currently able to handle cases in the area and that other preventative measures have been taken. The state did eventually respond to the group’s request for more testing in the area. Last week, the Florida Department of Health and the Florida National Guard opened up a testing site in Immokalee. People began lining up two hours before the site opened, according to local press reports. Results are not yet available.

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers is asking state officials to provide any positive workers with space for isolation, health care and contact tracing to stem the spread in the community.

Farmworker advocates said they will continue to urge policymakers to pay much more attention to front line field workers. They argue that these individuals should be seen as just as essential as nurses or delivery workers, who have been much more broadly recognized for their contributions during the pandemic.

“That’s one thing that many people don’t realize: Our well-being is tied together,” said Chavez, a farmworker leader with CIW. “If we don’t have food, then there is no way in which anything else can function.”

This blog originally appeared at Politico on May 12, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Helena Bottemiller Evich is a senior food and agriculture reporter for POLITICO Pro. Before joining POLITICO, Helena spent four years reporting on food politics and policy at Food Safety News, where she covered Congress, the Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

About the Author: Liz Crampton is an agriculture and food policy reporter for POLITICO Pro. Her coverage focuses on conservation, pesticides and agribusiness. Before joining POLITICO, Liz covered antitrust enforcement for Bloomberg BNA, reporting on mergers and investigations by the Justice Department and Federal Trade Commission. She launched a weekly blog, Fair Play, that explored hot topics on the beat.


Share this post

The Other Victims of California’s Fires: Workers Inhaling Toxic Fumes

Share this post

With the death toll now standing at 42 and with some 7,200 structures destroyed, officials are now calling the wildfire in Paradise, CA (dubbed the “Camp Fire”) the deadliest and most destructive in California’s recent history. Two other massive fires—dubbed the Hill Fire and Woolsey Fire are simultaneously scorching Southern California.

As frontline firefighters—including many prison laborers—continue to battle the blaze while healthcare providers work around the clock treating fire victims, millions of other workers far away from the inferno are feeling a secondary impact: toxic smoke.

In the San Francisco Bay Area, over 160 miles away from the Camp Fire, air quality dramatically declined almost immediately after the fires broke out. Over the past week, AirNow, a government website reporting real-time air quality data has shown the Bay Area hovering between 150-200 on the federal Air Quality Index (AQI), surpassing 200 (or “very unhealthy” levels) in parts of the Bay. The higher the AQI value, the more polluted the skies are and the more concern there is for public health.

This week, the Bay Area also saw the second highest amount of fine particulate matter in the air ever recorded. This substance is not only made up of smoke from charred forests, but could contain everything that gets incinerated when residences go up in flames: cars, fuel, batteries, light bulbs, cleaning products, plastics, upholstery and more.

Public health officials have been advising residents of affected areas to stay indoors to avoid the unhealthy air that can lead to headaches, dizziness, shortness of breath, coughing, wheezing, eye irritation and worse.

However, for many workers who work outdoors for a living, that’s easier said than done.

While many white collar workers don protective masks to commute to office jobs where recirculated air conditioning provides some measure of protection from the smoky skies, hundreds of thousands of farmworkers, day laborers, landscapers, construction workers, public works employees and others have no choice but to work through the harmful haze—at great detriment to their health.

Many of these workers hail from neighborhoods and worksites already facing increased levels of toxins. Compounding the situation, these are also often the very same workers who are least protected by worker health and safety regulations.

“It’s been horrible,” says Kywanna Reed, who has been working 10-hour days outside this week as a traffic controller. “I wake up with headaches. I go to sleep with headaches. I have a headache right now, and a bag of headache medicine in the truck. My whole respiratory system is messed up. My coworker had a nosebleed and went home sick.”

Reed said her employer, American Construction & Supply Inc., did not provide masks to employees.

“Employers should pass out masks and you could choose to wear them or not,” says Reed, “But right now, they’re not doing anything.”

Other workers, however, say their employers are providing masks while verbally encouraging workers to protect themselves.

Cesar Fragoso, who works as a landscaper for Planting Justice, said the non-profit nursery in East Oakland passed out masks to employees.

“I work outside every day, weeding and transplanting plants. I can feel the smoke in my nose. My eyes started itching. I’ve been coughing. The masks help, but it’s tragic that we have to go through this in order for people to acknowledge what we are doing to the environment,” says Fragoso.

A 2017 news release from the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) advises that “Employers with operations exposed to wildfire smoke must consider taking appropriate measures as part of their Injury and Illness Prevention Program under Title 8 section 3203 of the California Code of Regulations and as required under section 5141 (Control of Harmful Exposure to Employees).”

Those measures include “using a filtered ventilation system in indoor work areas,” “limiting the time that employees work outdoors” and “providing workers with respiratory protective equipment.”

However, as worker advocates note, holding employers accountable for taking such measures can be a challenge.

“Even though people we know from Cal/OSHA have made a tremendous effort, their presence in the field is so limited that it is really hard for them to do any kind of enforcement or implementation,” says Dinorah Barton-Antonio of the Labor and Occupational Health Program at UC Berkeley.

Other workers say they wouldn’t use a mask even it was provided, citing the already highly dangerous nature of their industries. Sixty-three-year-old carpenter Ruel Bernard smelled the smoke and started sneezing this week as he hung siding at a residential construction site, but chose not to wear a mask.

“Us older generation of construction workers, our bodies have been toxic waste dumps from the get-go. I started working in New York in 1971, breaking down plastic walls, climbing around in attics filled with insulation and dust. Every day I hurt myself at work, so at some point you’re just like ‘Fuck it,’” explains Bernard. “I know that’s a dinosaur, macho attitude. But that attitude helps us survive in this industry.”

The idea that the smoke from the wildfires is just one ingredient in an already toxic soup of working conditions resonates in farmworker communities.

Lucas Zucker is the Policy Director at Central Coast United for a Sustainable Economy (CAUSE), which works with immigrant farmworkers in Ventura and Santa Barbara Counties. During last summer’s wildfires, CAUSE distributed N95 masks to workers in the field.

“Farm work is already dangerous on the day-to-day. This area has some of the highest use of toxic pesticides,” notes Zucker. “But then with the wildfires, the ag industry pushes to harvest their crop quickly to prevent damage to crops like strawberries and avocados. So we actually see an increase in production, with obvious implications for human health. Whereas a white collar worker might be able to take time off and have that paid, for farmworkers who get paid piece rate it’s hard for them to take that time off if they’re already living paycheck to paycheck.”

While much of the conversation in the Bay Area about protection from the smoke has focused on masks, some workers point to having power on the job—whether that be in the form of a union contract or worker ownership—as one of the largest factors in ensuring worker health and safety.

“We have a union here. It helps us get through things like this because I feel like we have some camaraderie and I can take steps to take care of myself without worrying that I’ll lose my job,” says Daniel DeBolt, who works as a deckhand on the ferry boats that shuttle tourists and commuters from Oakland to San Francisco and who has been experiencing headaches and fatigue all week.

Worker power on the job was also key for Dante Ortiz from Root Volume, a worker-owned landscaping cooperative.

“In 20 years of building gardens in wildfire-prone areas like Colorado and California, I’d never had a day where we had to pull out because of air quality, but that happened last Friday. We were doing heavy excavation, trenching for retaining walls. It’s hard work. You’re breathing heavily, which is the worst thing you could be doing,” says Ortiz. “So we all decided it was time to get out of there. Being in a worker cooperative gave us the agency to make that decision for ourselves.”

However, other workers like day laborers don’t have stable employment or consistent employers.

According to Gabriela Galicia, the Executive Director of the Street Level Health Project in Oakland, CA, “Workers stand on the corner for up to eight hours a day waiting for work. Many corners are already near toxic fumes, and now workers are out in the smoke too.”

Galicia notes that many workers are already thinking about heading north in search of work rebuilding fire-devastated communities, which carries its own risks to workers’ rights and their health. Worker exploitation and wage theft has marred reconstruction in post-disaster recovery efforts across the country.

“We’ve seen too many natural disasters where day laborers have been taken advantage of,” says Galicia. “They are human beings. They’re helping to rebuild. Treat them with dignity.”

As human-driven climate change intensifies and more of California becomes engulfed in flames, workers wonder whether toiling in toxic air is becoming “the new normal”—or if there can be a just transition to a new way of relating to land and labor.

CAUSE’s Lucas Zucker explains, “Ultimately, we need state or federal disaster aid that can fill in the gaps for workers exposed to disaster or toxic conditions so that they don’t have to make that horrible choice between putting food on their family’s table or being exposed to toxic conditions.”

This article was originally published at In These Times on November 13, 2018. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Brooke Anderson is an Oakland, California-based organizer and photojournalist. She has spent 20 years building movements for social, economic, racial and ecological justice. She is a proud union member of the Pacific Media Workers Guild, CWA 39521, AFL-CIO.

Share this post

Facing rising temperatures and pollution, farmworkers are being left behind by Florida lawmakers

Share this post

APOPKA, FLORIDA — An election is happening on Tuesday, but Florida’s farmworkers seem largely underwhelmed.

“I don’t think they care, to tell the truth, I really don’t think they care,” says Linda Lee as she sits in front of her small house near the sprawling Lake Apopka, just northwest of Orlando.

A former farmworker and vocal activist, the 66-year-old grandmother is hardly an apathetic presence. What happens in the state’s capital, Tallahassee — and in the nation’s further north in Washington D.C. — impacts Lee’s family and life. But years of silence from lawmakers have taught farmworkers in this area that if they want things to change, they’ll have to be the ones to drive the conversation.

For decades, farmworkers in the Sunshine State have waged war — against pollution and pesticides, against hardline immigration laws, against low wages. Now, amid warming temperatures and shifting weather patterns, they are increasingly turning their attention to climate change. And they plan to address the issue with or without the willing cooperation of lawmakers.

Orlando, the metropolis neighboring Apopka, is home to the sprawling tourist attraction Disney World. Where Orlando offers glitter and glam for millions of visitors every year, the area surrounding Lake Apopka is a study in contrasts. The area is traditionally home to farming country, with an emphasis on the citrus so often associated with Florida.

That claim to fame has a tragic coda. Pesticides associated with agriculture have contributed to making Lake Apopka one of the state’s leading cautionary tales. Pollution in the lake is overwhelming. Once a fisherman’s paradise, the area is now infamous for the deformities alligators and other animals have developed thanks to exposure to insecticides like dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, or DDT.

What has happened to Lake Apopka’s wildlife is well-known, but the trauma haunting the area’s residents has largely been glossed over.

Exposure to pesticides has plagued Apopka’s farmworkers for generations, something people like Linda Lee know well. Lee lost both a daughter and a granddaughter to the inflammatory disease lupus, something she believes is likely the result of their proximity to pesticides in the area.

Their deaths have haunted her, but she remains committed to fighting for her community and for herself. These days, that means broadening the conversations farmworkers have about issues like pesticides, or the hardline anti-immigration policies that directly impact undocumented workers.

“We can’t stop God, for one thing,” Lee says, referring to climate change. “But I think that people, especially the people sitting up in Washington, they need to do more.”

Farmworkers have long been among the most vulnerable people in the United States, largely cut out of labor protections and provided few rights under the law. Most are Black and Latinx, many are immigrants, and virtually all are low-income. Their vulnerable status has often seen them left out of conversations surrounding issues like climate change.

That’s something people like Jeannie Economos want to change. Economos works with the Farmworker Association of Florida, or FWAF, an organization that has fought to protect the state’s farmworkers and advocate for them.

Much of her work with FWAF has been focused on “health and safety” concerns relating to pesticides, Economos says, but that’s changing.

“For the past few years,” she continues, “with the changing climate and hotter temperatures, we’ve been more concerned about [the] impact of heat stress.”

In July, FWAF joined a coalition of 130 organizations calling on the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to require employers to protect workers from the heat. Mandatory rest breaks, access to shade, and frequent hydration are among the demands included in a petition sent to the agency.

According to the petition’s analysis, heat has killed more than 780 workers across the country between 1992 and 2016, and seriously injured nearly 70,000. With climate change, heat stress is likely to get worse and put more people at risk.

Economos says joining the OSHA petition was a “no-brainer” for FWAF, but she emphasized that for local activists, the effort is only one part of a larger fight.

“We’re really concerned about the effects of both climate change and heat, in many ways, in Florida,” she says. “We’re concerned about the acute and immediate impacts of heat, the long-term impact of heat-exposure and chronic dehydration, [that it could] shorten a person’s work years and possible their life.”

But the sun isn’t the only problem. Climate change is also warming waters off of Florida’s coast, something that scientists say is exacerbating the intensity of hurricanes. And when those hurricanes hit, they destroy property along with agriculture, a dual blow for farmworkers.

“Hurricane Irma did a lot of damage to the crops in Florida,” Economos says, pointing to the major storm that hit the state last fall. “A lot [of areas] had damage, a lot of rental homes were impacted. And farmworkers, living in trailers, even if [the trailers] were damaged, they had to pay rent. The crop was also damaged. They had no work and they had to pay rent.”

Talking about climate change doesn’t mean advocates are abandoning their focus on other issues. But global warming is becoming a major focus of groups like FWAF. And they’re not alone — in the midst of a heated election year, climate issues have taken center-stage in Florida, with sea-level rise and a toxic algae bloom crisis emerging as major themes, along with long-standing points of contention like offshore drilling.

Whatever way the wind blows on Tuesday during Florida’s primary elections, Apopka area residents like Lee say they are ready to hold lawmakers accountable to the farmworkers they have long ignored.

“When they get in office, they close and lock their doors. You call them on the telephone, [their assistants say] they’re in Washington, they’re in Tallahassee, they’re never where you need them to be until it’s time to vote,” says Lee.

She smirks. “And it’s coming time to vote.”

This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on August 27, 2018. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: E.A. Crunden is a reporter at ThinkProgress focused on environmental and world issues, as well as immigration and social justice in the U.S. South and Appalachia. Texpat. She/her, they/them, or no pronouns. Get in touch: [email protected]


Share this post

Why Defending Workers’ Rights Means Fighting ICE’s Deportation Machine

Share this post

Last month, California Labor Commissioner Julie Su distributed a memo instructing her staff to turn away any Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents who show up at labor offices without a federal warrant. This action came in response to three recent cases in which ICE sought workers’ information shortly after they filed claims against their employers. Su told The Los Angeles Times that, in two of these cases, ICE officials showed up at the employees’ labor hearing. In case ICE continues to show up at such hearings, Su provided suggested scripts to guide the interaction. “Would you please leave our office? The Labor Commissioner does not consent to your entry or search of any part of our office,” reads one portion of the text.

ICE’s targeting of labor hearings falls into a much broader pattern of workplace immigration raids. The second term of the George W. Bush administration saw a boom in such policies, with authorities carrying out hundreds of sweeps targeting workers. In May of 2008, hundreds of Homeland Security agents swooped into Postville, Iowa and arrested 389 employees at a kosher meatpacking plant. Nearly 300 of those workers spent five months in jail before being deported. In a town with a population of just 2,300 people, this meant that more than 10 percent of all residents were incarcerated as the result of one raid. “They don’t go after employers. They don’t put CEOs in jail,” said Postville Community Schools superintendent David Strudthoff at the time. “[This] is like a natural disaster—only this one is man-made. In the end, it is the greater population that will suffer and the workforce that will be held accountable.”

While Barack Obama deported more people than any other president, the tactic of targeting workers fluctuated on his watch. Data from ICE indicates that workplace immigration arrests peaked for Obama in 2011—but never reached the levels seen under Bush. The National Employment Law Project’s (NELP) Haeyoung Yoon told In These Times that, while we haven’t seen widespread examples of workplace raids under the Trump administration, this doesn’t mean they’re not coming eventually. “These efforts take a lot of time to plan,” said Yoon.

Underscoring Yoon’s point, 55 undocumented workers were detained in February in a series of Mississippi restaurant raids. After the arrests, ICE public affairs officer Thomas Byrd said that the federal search warrants were part of a year-long investigation.

State organizations like the Illinois Business Immigration Coalition are training employers to prepare for the possibility of such sweeps. NELP and the National Immigration Law Center have created a helpful guide for businesses concerned about ICE raids, which includes details on how to keep agents out, what to do if they enter and what actions can be taken after they leave. “Employers and their employees have rights when it comes to immigration enforcement in the workplace,” wrote NELP staff attorney Laura Huizar shortly after the guide was published. “Employers can and should take steps now to protect those rights and do what’s best for their business and their teams.”

In California, where almost half of the state’s farmworkers are undocumented, there have been recent legislative efforts to combat workplace raids. The SEIU-sponsored Immigrant Worker Protection Act (AB 450) is a bill, introduced this March, that would require all employers to demand a federal warrant if ICE shows up. The legislation, which was introduced by San Francisco Assemblymember David Chiu, would also prevent businesses from handing over personal employee information unless they were subpoenaed.

But what is to be done about employers who willingly collude with ICE? While explaining her memo, Julie Su told the Los Angeles Times that she suspected businesses of tipping agents off to labor hearings, events where only the employer and employee would be aware of the scheduled time. Earlier this year, Jose Flores, a 37-year-old Massachusetts man, was arrested by ICE shortly after a workers’ compensation meeting. Flores’ lawyers believe that the arrest might have been retaliation from Flores’ employer, Tara Construction, looking for a way to get out of paying out the claim. Stephen Murray, a lawyer for Tara Construction, insists that his client made no contact with ICE and had no reason to believe Flores’ was undocumented.

A recent investigation by ProPublica and NPR reveals that this is hardly an isolated case. Their review focuses on Florida, where a 2003 law made it illegal to for workers to file compensation claims using false identification. In the 14 years since, at least 130 injured workers were arrested under the law. At least one in four of those workers was detained by ICE or deported. “State fraud investigators have arrested injured workers at doctor’s appointments and at depositions in their workers’ comp cases,” reads the report. “Some were taken into custody with their arms still in slings.”

The report also points out that the Florida model could be a preview of widespread things to come under the Trump administration. If this is true, then the labor movement could end up taking a closer look at Tom Cat Bakery in Queens, where a Homeland Security inquiry and promise of subsequent firings sparked radical protests. Employers who openly collude with Trump’s deportation machine might soon be targets of the same resistance.

 This article was originally published at In These Times on August 21, 2017. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Michael Arria covers labor and social movements. Follow him on Twitter: @michaelarria

Share this post

Pesticide Threat Looms Large Over Farmworker Families

Share this post

No matter how good your next meal tastes, it’s likely it made society ill.

A new analysis by the Pesticide Action Network North America (PAN) draws a disturbing connection between pesticides in our food system and serious health problems among women and children. The report reviews empirical research linking agricultural chemicals to birth defects, neurological disorders, childhood cancers and reproductive problems.

Some of these chemicals make their way into the foods we eat, but they are more acutely concentrated in the environments surrounding farmlands. Children in or near farming areas can be exposed through myriad channels, from contaminated soil to the air in playgrounds.

But children in farmworker communities are especially at risk. While the report confirms the growing public concerns about health risks permeating our food chain, it also shows how socioeconomic inequalities can shovel many of the worst effects onto exploited, impoverished workers.

There’s been much public debate over the importance of organic produce, sustainable farming and regulating genetically modified foods–usually spurred by concerns over consumer health or animal rights. We hear less about the safety concerns that affect the workers who handle our fruits and vegetables before anyone else. For many Latino migrant workers, there’s no equivalent of a comprehensive safety label–no option to avoid the ubiquitous poisons in the field. Many worry that to complain about working conditions would mean being fired. Others simply–and quite reasonably–have little faith in the anemic government regulatory systems.

PAN cites research showing that pesticide injuries are prevalent among agricultural workers. Various studies cited in the report also suggest an epidemic of chemical “drift” from fields into nearby homes and neighborhoods. According to a 2009 report by the advocacy groups Earth Justice and Farmworker Justice (FWJ), “a growing number of epidemiological studies link pesticide drift to specific adverse health effects in humans, including autism spectrum disorders, Parkinson’s disease, and childhood acute lymphoblastic leukemia.”

While the problem is politically invisible, the effects are all too apparent. The PAN report describes the experience of Ana Duncan Pardo, a community health activist in North Carolina, who had a jarring encounter with farmworker families:

Within five minutes I had noted multiple cleft palates and several children with apparent Down Syndrome…. It was shocking and disturbing to walk into a room with a group of parents and children that easily represented three to four times the national average for birth defects.

The effect is likely compounded by the widespread use of child labor in agriculture–children barely in their teens can legally work on farms. That puts kids in daily contact with toxins that could irreparably harm their brains and bodies.

A FWJ briefing paper points to a history of vast dissonance between the federal regulation of harmful pesticides for heavily exposed workers, and parallel standards for the general public. The Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act establishes public health-based safety protections, for example, but environmental advocates point out that farmworker families’ health vulnerabilities are neglected and essentially ignored in regulatory assessments of the social costs of industrial pesticide use.

Children of farmworker families are left with far weaker protections despite their special vulnerability. Despite some restrictions on child workers handling pesticides, according to FWJ, “Children under 16 can still handle Category III or IV pesticides even though the chronic hazards associated with these chemicals include ‘potential neurotoxicity, reproductive toxicity, endocrine disruption, and carcinogenic effects.’”

Even if they don’t work in the fields, the children of farmworkers are not necessarily safe in their own homes. Virginia Ruiz, FWJ’s director of Occupational & Environmental Health, explains that farmworkers working with pesticides carry “take-home residues” on their clothes and skin. While safety warnings recommend avoiding physical contact with contaminated workers, Ruiz says, “It’s sort of unrealistic expectation of people to refrain from hugging their children and other family members as soon as they get home.”

The PAN analysis urges consumers and parents to take action for stronger safety protections. These could include mandates to phase harmful pesticides out of the market, and promoting pesticide-free school lunches and playgrounds.

Nonetheless, the battle against the pesticide threats on farms can’t be limited to the consumer end of the food chain. Farmworkers need to be engaged as stakeholders in pursuing just solutions to the unique risks posed to their communities. Farmworkers have played a leading role pushing for tighter EPA regulations as well as grassroots efforts to mobilize communities against pesticide drift. For example, a community-driven campaign in California’s Central Valley led to the creation of buffer zones to keep pesticide contamination away from sensitive locations like schools, farmworker camps and residential areas.

Kristin Schafer, coauthor of PAN’s report, tells Working In These Times, “Farmworker families were essential to the success of these efforts–some working behind the scenes, others speaking out to demand protections for their families.” She adds that environmental monitoring projects in other farmworker communities have provided opportunities for laborers “to document pesticide drift from neighboring fields, and use [this] as scientific evidence to advance these protections.” Community activists are now pressing California’s regulatory authorities to transition farms away from pesticides and toward greener alternatives.

Still, in every policy debate, farmworker families will face tremendous barriers of race, language ability, political disenfranchisement and poverty. Those aren’t chemical threats, but they constitute the climate of oppression that blankets the nation’s farms, and that corrosive cloud is now drifting into all our communities.

This post originally appeared in Working In These Times on October 20, 2012.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Michelle Chen’s work has appeared in AirAmerica, Extra!, Colorlines and Alternet, along with her self-published zine, cain. She is a regular contributor to In These Times’ workers’ rights blog, Working In These Times, and is a member of the In These Times Board of Editors. She also blogs at Colorlines.com. She can be reached at [email protected]


Share this post

Terror in the Fields: Migrant Women Face Sexual Violence on the Job

Share this post

Michelle Chen

There aren’t many jobs in the United States that are tougher than farmwork-—picking crops under a sweltering sun, earning just enough to survive, jumping from one unstable seasonal job to another. But the job is especially unbearable if you have to work yourself to exhaustion all day under the watch of the man who raped you.

There have over the years been numerous reports of widespread sexual abuse of women farmworkers-—everything from being called demeaning names by supervisors to brutal sexual assault. Many of the victims suffer in silence, cut off from law enforcement and social services and fearful of losing their jobs if they come forward to authorities, according to a report on sexual violence in agricultural work by Human Rights Watch.

The report, based on dozens of interviews with survivors and advocates, outlines the multiple barriers to justice that women face-—not just institutional sexism but also crippling poverty and discrimination in law enforcement. Women may feel they have little choice but to suffer humiliating treatment and abuse in order to support their families. The consequences of reporting sexual violence can be devastating for the whole household, because the boss might fire both the victim and the family members who work alongside her.

Women make up a sizable minority in a male-dominated agricultural workforce. The economic oppression that afflicts the farmworker population generally is exacerbated by a climate of gender oppression, in which women are viewed as sexual objects, and victims of abuse may face devastating social stigma even from their own community.  Single women, indigenous, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender workers are especially at risk, according to HRW researchers.

The testimonial of Angela G. describes how her abuse was enforced by layers of silence and impunity ingrained in the workplace culture:

In her experience, women in general were not valued by the supervisors and the foremen, but Angela reported that because she did not have a partner, she was singled out for abuse. “I was called a dyke; they said I was a lesbian…. [The supervisor] and the foreman would laugh.” She was afraid to say anything because others who had complained of sexual harassment had been fired immediately. But to listen in silence day after day caused her a great deal of pain…

Angela stayed on, however, because she wanted to get promoted, earn a higher salary, and be better able to support her family. And then one day, a supervisor asked her to come over to his house to pick up some boxes. Angela reported that after she entered the house, he raped her.

Angela said she felt powerless: “For me, it felt like an eternity. I wanted to scream but I couldn’t. Afterward, he said I should remember that it’s because of him that I have this job, and if I say anything, I’ll lose my job…. I was afraid to call the police, to do anything. I didn’t know what to do. My mind was completely blocked off.”

No one knows how often this scene is repeated every day on the vast industrial farms that have drawn hundreds of thousands of migrants. But since the migrant farm workforce is the product of federal labor, food and immigration policies, the government is at least complicit in, if not at the crux of, this system of exploitation.

Although the law should theoretically protect all women from such abuse, immigrant workers are deterred from reporting work-related sexual violence because the law tends to criminalize them rather than treat them as survivors deserving of justice. As federal and state authorities have focused on arresting and deporting the undocumented, immigrant communities have every reason to see police as a source of terror, not protection.

Although special immigration relief known as the U-Visa is available to victims of crime, advocates are concerned that the qualifications for the visa are too stringent for people who are dealing with trauma and economic hardship. Access to counseling and other services is also severely constrained by language and culture barriers that make it hard for social agencies to build trust with underserved communities.

At the same time, sexual victimization is part of a continuum of exploitation, and as long as farmworkers, whether they’re here legally or not, are excluded from equal labor and civil rights, suffering in all forms will remain an intrinsic part of the agricultural system. Grace Meng, a researcher in Human Rights Watch’s U.S. Program who authored the report, said that while farmworkers face unique threats on the job, “a lot of the factors that make them vulnerable are true of unauthorized immigrant workers in a lot of industries.” Although special remedies like the U-Visa might help address individual violations, she said, “We think that the most practical and effective way to deal with the vulnerability of these workers and this population to crime and other abuses is to enact comprehensive immigration reform.”

It should be no surprise that on America’s farms, so many women are treated as less than human, since not even the government sees them as worthy of respect under the law.

An earlier version of this article was published on Alternet.

This blog originally appeared in In These Times on May 28, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the author: Michelle Chen’s work has appeared in AirAmerica, Extra!, Colorlines and Alternet, along with her self-published zine, cain. She is a regular contributor to In These Times’ workers’ rights blog, Working In These Times, and is a member of the In These Times Board of Editors. She also blogs at Colorlines.com. She can be reached at michellechen @ inthesetimes.com.


Share this post

An Agreement That Isn’t Good for Anyone: The Panama Trade Promotion Agreement

Share this post

People and planet should come before profits, but the proposed Panama trade plan would mean greed rules. The Senate Finance committee is meeting tomorrow to discuss the proposed Panama Trade Promotion Agreement. Top trade negotiator Ron Kirk is trying to ram through this agreement by July 1, when the Panamanian head of state Martin Torrijos leaves office. But this is just another free trade agreement that is bad for the people of Panama, it’s bad for the planet, and it’s no good for people of the US. We should call upon Congress to stop it now.

There’s a rancher that I know who raises cattle in the San Blas mountains of Panama, who I’ll only call Uncle Rickie. I met Uncle Rickie when I traveled to Panama in November of 2008, and I remember him for being a jolly fellow with a big belly who proudly bounced his new granddaughter Antonia, his first grandchild, on his knee.

If the Panama agreement went forward, Uncle Rickie would have to contend with a host of difficulties. The first would be that US cattle ranchers, who enjoy hundreds of millions in subsidies from the US government (US livestock farmers got handouts of about $344 million in 2003, for example,) would suddenly be able to sell duty-free to Panamanians. At the same time, Uncle Rickie will have to compete with a dramatic influx of cheap pork products from the US. Pro-pork lobbyists think that increased sales to Panama will result in $20.6 million in increased revenue. Uncle Rickie will have a lot of trouble making a profit by selling his beef to the Panamanian market, and eventually he may have to sell his land.

Farmers should be allowed to sell to their local markets. Local, living economies are good for everyone. If officials pass the harmful agreement, farmers like Uncle Rickie will no longer be able to carry on farming. Who would be there to buy the land of farmers who are forced to sell? Companies from the US and other rich nations, and maybe some wealthy Panamanians who support this agreement. This leads to a consolidation of power and decision-making as fewer people own more and more of planet earth. But people have a right to self-determination and autonomy, and the Panamanian government should respect that right.

Another supporter of the Panama agreement is Caterpillar, maker of heavy machinery used for logging and constructions. They are frothing at the mouth thinking of all the Panamanian trees that they can cut down and the increased heavy machinery sales that will result.

By the time little Antonia is going on her first date, the forests of Panama will probably be decimated, the clean rivers and pristine stands of old growth trees a distant memory. Verdant ecosystems will be forever ruined for incredible species like the blue morpho butterfly, which I first saw shining iridescently as it soared through the rainforest in the Boquete region of Panama. Like all of us, Antonia has a right to intact ecosystems, which Caterpillar seeks to undermine through supporting this trade agreement.

Another group who will be thrown under the bus if this agreement passed would be the Kuna Indians, a Panamanian ethnic group who have preserved their cultural heritage. Traditional farmers and artisans, these indigenous peoples will also face steep competition and many may have to abandon the ecologically sustainable, culturally rich ways of life their ancestors have known for thousands of years.

Will Antonia benefit from a more productive national economy? Probably not. Even looking at the brute economic indicator of gross domestic product, this trade agreement does not promise positive effects.

A similar trade agreement offers foreshadowing of what could happen if the Panama agreement goes through. NAFTA, a 1994 trade agreement between Canada, the US and Mexico, has shown that increased unprotected trade with the US is not likely to promote self-government, support local, living economies, or benefit most people at all.

GDP growth has been unequal after NAFTA, with Canada growing an average of 3.6 percent per year, the US growing 3.3 percent and Mexico growing only 2.7 percent. The average Mexican did not benefit from this growth, as income inequality has risen. Wages of Mexican workers decreased by 18 percent in the first five years. The predominant occupation in Mexico prior to NAFTA was farming, but many farmers, mostly in Central Mexico, were forced to sell or abandon their land after subsidized corn from the US flooded into Mexican markets, leaving the Mexican farmer unable to compete. Corn is indigenous to Mexico, and was farmed mostly sustainably. But now what is left is forced to compete in an atmosphere of industrial agriculture.

After NAFTA, Mexico has maintained a trade deficit with the US, meaning they import more than they export. This leaves the country hemorrhaging money and exports, which isn’t good for anyone in Mexico.

Furthermore, trade agreements like this one are bad for US workers, as we lose jobs here in the US. In just the first seven years, NAFTA had caused the loss of 766,030 jobs in the US. And it will cost us tax dollars, too. By 2002, the US Department of Labor had qualified 408,000 workers extensions on their unemployment benefits because their jobs had moved to Mexico.

Trade between the US and Panama totaled $2.1 billion in 2002 according to the office of the US Trade Representative. US exports account for about $1.8 billion of that amount. This means that for every $10 worth of goods that the US sells to Panama, Panama sells only $1 worth of goods to the US. The exports Panama sells to the US account for a tiny fraction, only 1.4 percent, of its GDP of $21 billion. Yet it is willing to sell its people down the river for this pittance.

The farmers who’ll be forced to sell their land and migrate may be forced to relocate to the city of Colon, where there are jobs in the Colon Free Trade Zone, or Zono Libre. When you picture a free trade zone, picture “Pleasure Island” from the Disney cartoon Pinocchio. For rich companies, a free trade zone represents a lawless area free from tariffs, taxes, or pesky labor or environmental laws. It usually looks like a collection of warehouse-like buildings on the edge of a port city that is protected by barbed wire. Working people (such as ex-farmers) travel into these zones each morning to do the most tedious grunt labor in return for low wages. Corporations like the low wages, while the workers are usually just desperate for any work they can get. Ships pull up to the buildings, unload raw materials like T-shirt fabric or radio parts, workers assemble them, and the finished goods get shipped to rich countries where people can afford them.

In his 2008 State of the Union address, Bush asked Congress to approve the Panama trade agreement, gleefully stating that the agreement “will support good jobs for the finest workers in the world: those whose products say ‘Made in the USA.’” That sentiment is perplexing to anyone familiar to Zono Libre, where low-paid workers work in unsafe work conditions to sew together textiles bound for the US valued at $400 million per year for companies like Orotex, with offices in Farmington Hills, Michigan. Textiles and clothing account for about 24 percent of the work done in Zono Libre. This happens as US workers lose more and more textiles jobs (stat), yet purchase more and more clothing (stat).

For all the celebrated freedom that free trade measures like the Colon Free Trade Zone has received, you would think that Panamanians would be better off, however the average Panamanian is not better off. Income inequality has risen, placing Panama among some of the most unequal countries in Latin America. Panama’s index for income inequality is 60, according to a World Bank report. As the report says, “[Inequality] is more obvious in urban areas like Colon, where the close, physical juxtaposition of the modern, dynamic wealthy sector with poor city slums accentuates the perceived gap between rich and poor.”

I have never seen Colon since my Panamanian friends have insisted that if I were to travel there I would become a certain victim of a mugging or kidnapping. But the real Panamanian danger isn’t really frustrated urban poor who see wealth all around them but can’t touch it. The real danger is the Panama trade agreement.

Some are arguing that this trade agreement is needed to rescue the US economy. But Panama’s entire economy is 0.15 percent the size of the US economy. The US has one hundred times more people than Panama. That’s right, I’m saying the country is tiny. For US officials to undermine people’s basic rights in order to do business with this small country in the hopes that its tiny economy will deliver us from certain economic death is a mistake.

If passed, this agreement will harm Panamanians like Uncle Rickie. It will negatively impact little Antonia and make her economic future less certain. It will not benefit the average Panamanian but is likely to lead to a decrease in self-government and a spike in income inequality, as NAFTA did. And it will not benefit people in the US. Our Congress should vote an emphatic “no” on the Panama Trade Promotion Agreement.

About the Author: Lacy MacAuley is a global justice activist, antiwar activist, and environmentalist with a passion for amplifying the voices of those who otherwise would not be heard. With a BA in International Relations specializing in World Development Studies, she is committed to promoting local, living economies that place people, planet, and principle before profit. She ignited a creative fire while working as news editor for her college newspaper, and has kept the flame burning through intensive grassroots organizing and  Lacy has done media relations work with groups such as Project Vote and ACORN, Global Justice Action, United for Peace and Justice, Jubilee USA, Mountain Justice Summer, and Working America (community affiliate of the AFL-CIO). Lacy is currently working on the Global Justice Media Project, and doing progressive communications work with Massey Media LLC.


Share this post

Follow this Blog

Subscribe via RSS Subscribe via RSS

Or, enter your address to follow via email:

Recent Posts

Forbes Best of the Web, Summer 2004
A Forbes "Best of the Web" Blog

Archives

  • Tracking image for JustAnswer widget
  • Find an Employment Lawyer

  • Support Workplace Fairness

 
 

Find an Employment Attorney

The Workplace Fairness Attorney Directory features lawyers from across the United States who primarily represent workers in employment cases. Please note that Workplace Fairness does not operate a lawyer referral service and does not provide legal advice, and that Workplace Fairness is not responsible for any advice that you receive from anyone, attorney or non-attorney, you may contact from this site.