In the midst of social distancing prompted by coronavirus, people often leave the house only for necessities: picking up prescriptions from the pharmacy, buying cleaning supplies or toilet paper, and grocery shopping.
But the Trump administration has declared agricultural workers as one of the “essential” groups of workers who are advised to continue working—meaning the 2.5 million U.S. farmworkers providing this food must put their health and safety on the line to keep Americans fed throughout this pandemic.
March’s end coincided with the end of Farmworkers Awareness Week. The campaign started with the launch of the Farmworkers’ COVID-19 Pandemic Relief Fund, an effort by Justice for Migrant Women and other organizations to provide help for this particularly vulnerable population during the global crisis.
Justice for Migrant Woman founder and president Mónica Ramírez understands the risks farmworkers take while continuing to go to work.
“It took a global pandemic for the federal government to acknowledge that farmworkers are critical,” Ramírez told Ms. “Our society and our very existence—by way of stocked grocery store shelves—depends on their labor, and the work of other food production and delivery workers.”
Many of their employers have not given them extra protective gear nor taken measures that account for their health and safety—despite the fact that they must work in close proximity to others in the field. For example, while working in the fields, many farmworkers are shielded only by bandannas to protect their faces. And in 2010, a study found that soap is often not available in hand-washing facilities in the fields.
Additionally, because many farmworkers live and work in rural areas, they were likely informed about the recommended safety measures to avoid contracting the virus—like buying extra cleaning supplies and stocking up on food—later than the rest of the general population.
“By the time they found out, there were no more supplies and limited food for them to buy for their families,” Ramírez said.
Even before the pandemic hit, farmworkers feared keeping or finding work—and Ramirez knows that coronavirus will only compound this fear more deeply.
“There is concern over whether people will be able to migrate for work within the U.S. and for the workers who would be traveling on work visas from outside of the US,” Ramírez said.
If they lose the ability to travel within the U.S., farmworkers cannot follow agricultural jobs from state to state and will ultimately lose their source of income.
With their already low wages and lack of financial safety nets, this health and financial risk is particularly concerning—as paying for treatment could prove to be incredibly taxing or, in some cases, impossible. And, since the vast majority of farmworkers are immigrants, they may not seek medical attention out of fear of deportation.
Still, the majority of farmworkers are unable to take the basic steps necessary to protect themselves. According to the 2018 National Agricultural Workers Survey, 45 percent of migrant workers live in crowded housing. And when farmworkers follow crops from location to location for work, they often travel travel in large groups, via vans or buses—making the idea of keeping six feet social distance laughable.
Farmworkers faced a similar dilemma with the spread of tuberculosis (TB): In 1906, as TB swept the country, Upton Sinclair wrote his famous novel, The Jungle, which explored how the jam-packed tenements and meatpacking houses where workers lived and worked were breeding grounds for the disease.
“Many of the same conditions that make them vulnerable to COVID-19 make them also vulnerable to TB—such as poverty, overcrowded housing, lack of information and fear of seeking medical attention,” Ramírez told Ms.
As the virus continues to spread, these factors not only compromise their health, but the overall health of our nation.
Despite the end of Farmworkers Awareness Week, the pandemic relief fund is still taking donations.
The coronavirus pandemic and the response by federal, state and local authorities is fast-moving.
During this time, Ms. is keeping a focus on aspects of the crisis—especially as it impacts women and their families—often not reported by mainstream media.
If you found this article helpful, please consider supporting our independent reporting and truth-telling for as little as $5 per month.