Thursday, June 4, 2020

Farmworkers in a Pandemic: Essential with No Rights

by Nezahualcoyotl Xiuhtecutli

It is now just three months since COVID-19 cases started becoming public in Florida. There had probably been some before that went undetected and resulted in a quicker spread of the virus among Florida's population. That is the nature of the virus and the hypermobile world in which up until last March we lived. The fallout of the pandemic has revealed some of the most salient inequalities plaguing our society such as access to healthcare, disposable income, and the ability to work remotely. In an article posted in The Washington Post, and the Economic Policy Institute 37 percent of Asian Americans and 30 percent of whites reported in a survey by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. On the other hand, only 20 percent of African Americans and 16 percent of Hispanics reported their ability to work from home. Only 11 percent of people working in agriculture reported being able to work from home during the pandemic. 

As state after state instituted shelter in place it became apparent that some people would have to remain working. Among these were healthcare workers, of course, but also those on whom it falls that the rest of us do not starve. Many food workers form part of the essential machinery on which we rely to put food on our tables and were rightly so deemed essential workers. In a disservice to the role they play in our economy and the injustice of the system under which they make ends meet, servers were not deemed essential. Farmworkers, as part of that industrial machinery that makes sure we have food at our table, were deemed essential. However, for all the saluting and nodding that has been going on for food workers, they remain some of the most vulnerable groups of workers with the fewest rights. 

The Food Industry and Essential Workers

Farmworkers are among the workers with the fewest rights. When Congress passed the National Labor Relations Act in 1938, it excluded farmworkers along with domestic workers from protections like the right to overtime pay afforded workers in other industries, maintaining thus the racial disparity southern lawmakers sought to preserve back home even as they approved and passed other measures introduced by the FDR Administration. Passage of the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947 further weakened unions' ability to organize workers ushering in the era of right to work. Since then, organizing workers in the US South has proven difficult, as this act limits unions in their ability to approach new workers to join its rank and file until a period of 30 days has passed. States throughout the South quickly seized on the opportunity to limit the power of workers to organize and moved bills through their respective legislatures writing the right to work into law. In effect, by limiting unions in their ability to approach new workers, these laws stripped workers off their right to bargain collectively.

While food worker organizing has gained some steam in the last few years, as reported by Jaya Saxena,  farmworkers remain a largely invisible workforce. When most of us think of farm work we are more likely to think of a man (and unfortunately not a woman, although roughly over a third of farm operators in the US are women) running a family farm. He is probably white (more accurately since only two percent of farmland is run by minorities in the US).  In that idyllic image, the farmer enjoys his bounty at the end of the harvest and then sells the fruits of their labor to a distributor in the area who then takes it to the grocery store. While there are still small family farms operating in the country, most agricultural work in the United States is done in a large commercial scale and those operations need labor, lots of labor, and the cheaper the better. Family farms at the same time continue to disappear.

Programs like the Bracero program that ran between 1942 and 1964 and the current H2-A "guest worker" visa program were designed to keep a steady flow of cheap labor for US agriculture from abroad. Having an imported labor force ensures that that force remains vulnerable not knowing the language, their rights, and by granting their contractors control over their movement, the system ensures workers remain vulnerable and dependent on their employers for every aspect of their life while in the US. It also undermines a capable domestic agricultural workforce who know the work and are willing to take it on. In the middle of this pandemic, those essential workers are more frequently being put at risk. Farmwork does not lend itself to social distancing. Workers have to work close together as they harvest the food and crops we consume. Additionally, many farmworkers live in close quarters. H2-A workers live in labor camps that resemble army barracks provided by their employers. Some may eat at a table shared by the 15 other men with whom they share their living quarters. Others may eat in what truly resembles a mess hall. And unfortunately, it is not only guest workers who have to live in these cramped up conditions, The American Public Health Association reports adequate housing shortage is a nationwide problem that leads to further crowded living conditions and deteriorating health conditions for domestic and H2-A workers in the United States (see also a report on farmworker housing in the State of California by the California Institute for Rural Studies here). 

Moreover, people in government are taking advantage of this public health crisis to adopt public policy regulation that would benefit wealthy corporations at the expense of the health and safety of workers. Last month, as reported in the New York Times, the Environmental Protection Agency issued a directive allowing "power plants, factories, and other facilities" to determine for themselves whether they were meeting legal requirements on the amount of pollutants they released into the environment. While the move was praised and condemned by former EPA Directors under the previous two administrations, the move itself speaks of the priorities determining environmental protection as well as the dangers to workers and other members of the general population. Former EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy called it "an open license to pollute." The EPA is also the federal agency overseeing pesticide application and worker protection against those chemicals. Relaxing the rules on pollution enforcement opens the door for abuses committed against farmworkers, especially when it comes to pesticide exposure. While general food demand is down, growers are still under pressure to keep the stores shelves stocked, reducing their profit margin. That usually leaves only one place to cut costs, in labor. Without the safeguard of enforceable regulation workers are at the mercy of growers' time constraints, and if the grower feels like they need to have their workers pick food sooner rather than later, they may not wait till the end of the designated wait period after pesticide application to have their workers enter the fields and start picking. This is is already a problem that farmworkers face. Discarding the possibility of consequences for employers, increases the likelihood of those risks on workers on farms where toxic pesticides are applied.

Also in April, as reported on NPR, the White House began working with US Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue in finding possible ways to reduce wages for agricultural guest workers admitted into the United States with an H-2A visas. Without getting too deep into the ills that the agricultural guest worker program has created or worsened and the exploitative nature of its design (guest workers are already underpaid, they live in crowded conditions, the recruitment process is undignified, and because many of those workers have to go into debt for the spot in the roster they are especially vulnerable to labor trafficking), that kind of approach seems like an opportunistic attempt at benefiting large agricultural producers who depend most heavily in access to that labor, rather than smaller farms who rely on a domestic workforce. Bringing down wage for guest worker not only harms those workers, but has the intended effect of bringing down wages for our existing domestic workforce who already has the skills needed for agricultural work and who also depends on those jobs. 

Lastly, also during the month of April, there were several reports of meatpacking plants in the Midwest and Plains that had been assailed by a surge of COVID-19 cases. The news mobilized various worker organizations and alliances to urge operators of those meatpacking plants to halt operations or better protect workers. Finally, as the plants' becoming hot spots for the outbreak made national news, did plants start to close. Amid these news, as reported in The Atlantic, Tyson Foods CEO, John H. Tyson took to publishing a page-long editorial in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette on April 26 decrying the disruption to meat supply line if his companies facilities were to close, omitting mention of working conditions that made meatpacking houses hot spots for an outbreak. This prompted the President of  the United States to exercise his powers under the Defense Protection Act and order meatpacking houses to remain in operation, yet without offering any guidelines from his administration to mitigate the spread of the virus or workers' conditions. In defense of the meatpacking industry, DHHS Secretary Alex Azar told Politico that workers' social and home life conditions were responsible for the presence of the virus in the meat industry. His remarks were soon interpreted to mean he faulted workers for the outbreak rather than their working conditions. 

Let us for a moment give Secretary Azar the benefit of the doubt and consider the message. Yes, it is true workers often live in crowded conditions. However, we should be talking about the system that facilitated those conditions and that still exploits workers for their labor and still pays them inadequately, so that they have to resort to crowded living as a way to cope with rents beyond their means. Those comments also do not take into consideration the family ties people of scant resources often rely on to help each other out. Getting your brother and brother-in-law to help you fix your car is cheaper than taking it to a mechanic's shop, with the understanding that you will have to reciprocate in kind at some point. Getting your cousins to help you with childcare is more affordable than having to pay for their stay at a facility while you go to work. These shortcomings of the system are there by design, and they keep a workforce vulnerable and easily exploitable.

Essential, Expendable, Disposable 

A more serious problem is the attitude we see towards farm labor. The string of deregulation coming from  the White House administration, its attempt to shift blame for the spread of the virus among packinghouses to the very victims of the assembly line work organization in which meat processing plants operate, and efforts to lower wages for an already underpaid risky occupation are all symptomatic of a deeper disdain for the people who plant, tend to, and harvest our food. 

A report by the Food Chain Workers Alliance found that at 56 percent of the food system workforce, most food workers in the United States are immigrants, while in a different report, the alliance found that representing 34 percent of the general population in the US, racial minorities represent 42 percent of the food system workforce, most of them in lower-paying positions in agricultural production and meat processing. These figures suggest a racialized food system funneling workers of color to the least visible positions away from the consumers' eyes. This results in the manufactured notion of who represents our workforce and who really is at higher risk. Even white workers working in the food service industry make on average just over the poverty line of $20,000 a year. 

Policies that demean the economic power of food workers deemed essential for the continued functioning of our society in the middle of a pandemic may be perceived as tone deaf. Policies that further endanger an already vulnerable population by increasing their risk to maintain the flow of the food supply really pose a more interesting question, who is an essential worker?  Healthcare workers are essential of course, and they are putting their lives on the line. Food workers are also deemed essential, and they are also putting their lives on the line. Unfortunately, we do not always see them and hear of their plight. Our food system keeps those workers out of sight and out of mind. And we ask them to go to work every day, even without being able to provide them with protective equipment, even unable to ensure they are able to distance themselves from one another, even without paying them above poverty wages.

Farmworkers especially are at risk, and given the conditions in which they are forced to work and live, the discrimination they face, and the occupational risks they are exposed to even before the outbreak, such as heat-related illness and pesticide exposure, when we say food workers are essential, do we just mean they are disposable? Our society seems to think so.

If you would like to help the Farmworker Association of Florida provide relief to farmworkers, please visit our GoFundMe page. These funds go to providing a safety net for farmworking families, providing food, help paying their utility bills, and providing health education information. Every little bit helps. Thank you!  

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