By Emma Barbazette and Tristan Grant
As grocery stores across the country have been running out of toilet paper, water, and flour in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, one thing that has remained in-stock and accessible in California stores is fresh produce. This is thanks to the tireless efforts of farmworkers who have continued to work through shelter-in-place orders and the fears of a pandemic, and were recently recognized as essential workers. While this designation recognizes the fact that farmworkers, most of whom are migrants, have for decades been an essential part of our country’s food infrastructure, the Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted just how severely underprotected and mistreated they are.
Farmworkers feed our nation, supplying the back-breaking labor necessary to grow and harvest the crops that we eat every day; however, the conditions they face at work are shameful. According to the Center for Farmworker Families, 75% of California’s farmworkers are undocumented immigrants. Employers often take advantage of undocumented farmworkers’ fears of being deported and deprive them of safe working conditions and necessities, such as healthcare and even a minimum wage.
Farmworkers are especially vulnerable to the novel coronavirus for a myriad of reasons, chief among them that they regularly lack access to healthcare and health insurance, have numerous health problems, face a language divide, lack safe working conditions, and are excluded from major protective labor acts. According to the 2014 National Agricultural Workers Survey (NAWS), only 35% of farmworkers have health insurance. Additionally, many factors among farmworkers increase the rates of conditions that cause coronavirus to be more deadly and dangerous. The 2011–2012 NAWS found that 16% of farmworkers had been exposed to pesticides in the last year, which can lead to health issues such as “infertility, birth defects, endocrine disruption, neurological disorders, and cancer.” Farmworkers’ low wages also mean that they lack access to healthy foods, leading to conditions like diabetes. In addition, as reported by the Fresno Bee, farmworkers lack information about how to protect themselves and their families during a pandemic, as many have little education and speak Indigenous languages, not Spanish. All of these factors combine to raise the risk to farmworkers exponentially.
It is important to recognize that these complex issues existed long before the coronavirus pandemic. They have been and continue to be perpetuated by our inadequate laws and public apathy. These problems will also undoubtedly continue after if we continue to do nothing to protect some of the most vital and most vulnerable workers in our country. Better legislative protections are necessary to remedy these issues by expanding health insurance to undocumented populations, prohibiting the use of harmful pesticides, and establishing and regulating a minimum wage for farmworkers, documented or not.
However, the coronavirus also brings with it new problems. Farmworkers often work and live in close proximity, and do not have the leisure to socially distance, subjecting them to a greater chance of contracting COVID-19. Carlos Gutierrez is a seventy-three year old farmworker who suffers from diabetes and the combination of his age and health issues could make the virus lethal. But either way, he must still go back hard to work at these toiling unsanitary fields. Cases such as Carlos’s are not rare. Many farm workers are in the same position but still must work to obtain the little money they are paid to barely support their families and themselves. While we rightly talk about those in the hospitals and the medical field as the heroes of this pandemic, we completely discredit all the other people that our society shuns and avoids noticing. This is truly pitiful and horrific that in a time where communities must come together as one to spread awareness and stay safe, humans neglect those who put their lives on the line every day to feed us but cherish others just because they are not from here or they don’t look like us. Workers are sacrificing their own and their families’ wellbeing to laboriously supply us with food in our markets and we repay them with nothing. This is a major concern and must be changed. Not only do more people need to be aware of these hidden heroes, but we also must support them. Where are the fundraisers, GoFundMes, and the money that farmworkers not only overly deserve but more importantly need? If our US government deem farmers and the roles they fulfill a necessity why are they the ones suffering?
Farmworkers are an essential part of our economy and our food system, and in the midst of a pandemic, are finally being legally recognized as such. However, it’s not enough to designate farmworkers as essential in words and orders alone. We must treat farmworkers as essential workers both during and after the coronavirus pandemic. As long as COVID-19 is a threat, this means providing facemasks, comprehensive safety training, housing in which to quarantine, and emergency health insurance to those afflicted by the coronavirus and unable to pay their medical bills. Beyond this pandemic, we have the responsibility to provide protections and regulations to farmworkers that recognize their importance and dignity. This includes an enforced minimum wage, prohibiting the use of harmful pesticides, expanding Internet and educational access in farmworker housing, expanding healthcare and insurance coverage, and increasing public transportation options to farmworker housing camps. These are basic protections that are desperately needed and woefully unaddressed. Farmworkers are and always have been essential workers, and if we are to halt the ill effects of this growing pandemic, we must start by aiding those who selflessly provide us the food on our tables.