UNA-NCA Snapshots
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UNA-NCA Snapshots

Exacerbated Vulnerability of Farmworkers amid COVID-19

By Torre Ippolito, UNA-NCA Advocacy Fellow

With the coronavirus spreading, farms try to keep workers like these in Greenfield, Calif. safe through physical distancing and other measures but advocates for laborers say protections are often not adequate. ||Brent Stirton/Getty Images

One of the first major challenges the COVID-19 pandemic presented to society’s routine functioning was to labor. Thus, the Department of Homeland Security delineated essential critical infrastructure workers as those “needed to maintain the services and functions Americans depend on daily and that need to be able to operate resiliently during the COVID-19 pandemic response.” The Food and Agriculture sector closely follows the Healthcare/Public Health sector and Law Enforcement/Public Safety in the DHS’s Memorandum on Critical Infrastructure Workers. While all essential workers are risking their health and, ultimately, their lives, farmworkers — specifically migrant and undocumented immigrant farmworkers — in the U.S. face a unique compilation of exacerbated risks during COVID due to our food system’s foundation upon the cheap labor of both undocumented and authorized immigrants.

Today, the USDA posits that almost half of all crop farmworkers in the U.S. are undocumented, while 21% are authorized immigrants; however, the New York Times estimated the undocumented figure to be closer to 75%. This structure is critical in understanding how in a post-slavery food system, temporary labor migrants provide a method for securing cheap labor to meet demands. Migrant work programs bind migrant workers’ right to be in this country to their willingness to work in precarious conditions. In agriculture, precarious conditions like extremely low wages, heat-stress, and crowded living and working conditions are ubiquitous and now compounded by COVID-19.

COVID-19 and Labor Regulations

Since the onset of COVID-19, the U.S has made two supplemental temporary policy adjustments affecting migrant workers in line with similar recommendations from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). OECD, while praising the impressive durability of food supply chains, noted labor as the first farming input bottleneck in the supply chain during the pandemic. The two primary explanations for these bottlenecks during the pandemic are workers’ illness and increased border restrictions. One recommendation to address these labor constraints was to ease farm employers’ regulatory requirements, easing access to seasonal labor through migration programs.

In the U.S., the Department of Homeland Security announced that it would be giving an extension of stay to H-2A workers — migrant workers hired to fill seasonal or temporary agriculture jobs for less than a year — with expiring contracts to work with new employers. This ease of regulations follows the U.S. Department of Labor’s proposal in 2019 for significant changes to the H-2A program, including cutting wages, reducing housing, and reducing other labor protections. Additionally, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency issued a statement announcing that it would adjust its enforcement procedures to focus only on undocumented persons posing a threat to public safety instead of ordinary undocumented persons.

Generally, these temporary changes seek to mitigate potential food insecurity by ensuring the necessary labor inputs exist for a functional food supply chain and maintaining the cheap labor securitization. Additionally, these changes reinforce the notion that migrant workers’ right to be in this country is expressly bound to their willingness to work in precarious conditions, including the severe risks of working during a global public health crisis. Neither policy shift aims to protect any workers’ health and well-being, regardless of their citizenship status. As of now, the Department of Labor has yet to mandate that employers take precautions against COVID-19 and protect farmworkers through adequate social distancing, PPE, masks, and accessible testing. While challenging to presume what long-term farmworker-related policy changes COVID will bring about, these recent temporary changes point to increased farmworker vulnerability, especially among immigrant and undocumented farmworkers.

Increased Vulnerabilities among Agricultural Workers

Currently, agricultural workers are testing at much higher rates for COVID than workers in other industries. The National Center for Farmworker Health estimated that more than 145,000 agricultural workers have tested positive for the virus. However, the figure is likely higher due to the exclusion of contract and temporary laborers. Physical conditions such as crowded living and working spaces are the most frequently cited hazards for farmworkers concerning COVID. Migrant farmworkers — those employed seasonally and travel with the crops — live in overcrowded employer-provided housing or off-site labor camps. These close quarters create dangerous environments for the transmission of the virus, as does transportation to and from the fields, which is also frequently provided by the employer. Farmworkers also face increased vulnerability due to the occupational application of pesticides, leading to high respiratory illness rates.

In addition to the immediate living and working conditions that increase all farmworkers’ risk of contracting COVID, undocumented workers face additional systemic vulnerabilities due to the lack of protections afforded to other essential workers, such as health insurance, unemployment insurance, and paid sick leave. This can be detrimental to these workers’ health and survival who already must subsist on poverty-level wages. Lack of personal transportation then makes accessing existing free health care services like COVID testing centers and clinics challenging. Furthermore, workers fear testing as a positive result could lead to permanent job loss. Fear of seeking medical services could also stem from undocumented workers’ related experiences with illness and injury on the job. For example, employers, who knowingly hire immigrants under false identities, have coercively used workers’ undocumented status to leverage the threat of deportation if workers attempt to report a workplace injury or illness, as documented within industrial poultry production regarding repetitive strain injuries and fingers loss to machines and among farmers facing excessive heat stress.

Local Groups Take Action

Failed by employers, local governments, and state governments alike, farmworkers have sought safety from COVID through alternative avenues. In Florida, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers has established international partnerships with organizations like Doctors Without Borders and Partners in Health to get sanitizing crews and handwashing stations. On two occasions, the local government denied an offer from Partners in Health to assist with the community contact tracing efforts, despite adamant claims from workers regarding the greater need for support. Farmworkers needing assistance from other groups because the government and their employers are not supplying them with the necessary supplies is not an isolated occurrence — in Texas and New Mexico, farmworkers relied on an NGO to provide PPE, water, and other supplies. In California, a survey showed that only 54% of agricultural employers in the state are providing face masks to workers.

Farmworker vulnerability, and immigrant worker vulnerability specifically, is not novel but emblematic of America’s low-road capitalism that relies on exploitation. The resulting policies under COVID-19 that prioritize the availability of cheap workers in the food supply over human health and well-being only reinforce these structures. Farmworkers hope that the increased concern to farmworkers during COVID brings more political awareness to the vulnerabilities that have always existed in food production. Join their current calls to action by asking local and state governments for contact tracing and isolation, community-wide testing, PPE, and economic relief. You can find a list of farmworker organizations to support here.

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UNA-NCA Snapshots provides a platform for our community leaders, partners, members & staff to publish op-eds, reviews, and innovative research. The views in this blog do not necessarily reflect the views of UNA-NCA. Ready to write? Submit your pitch to shayna@unanca.org.

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Advocacy @ UNA-NCA

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