Farmworkers in daily peril

Workers harvesting sweet potatoes. PHOTO: USDA
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In the middle of an historic pandemic, the government has rightly declared farmworkers essential to the food supply chain. As a former farmworker, I know it takes hard labor to plant and process the food that feeds everyone. Immigrants do most of this work. But documented or undocumented, the U.S. has never treated them as essential human beings.

Because of racism, farmworkers are impoverished, hunted down by ICE, imprisoned or deported. With Covid-19, they are among the most vulnerable. They work in close quarters. Their vast work includes inspection, packaging, distribution, delivery and storage. All arenas are breeding grounds for the coronavirus. Yakima County health officials in Washington state report almost 140 farm and fruit-packing workers have tested positive for Covid-19 as of April 29. Farmworkers have one of the lowest incomes in the U.S.

What better time for all working people dealing with this deadly virus to unify and demand solutions to the profit system?

Dirty tricks from agribusiness. Big growers stop at nothing to make mega profits off the backs of farmworkers. They use guest-worker programs to prevent unionization and to control when, where, and how long they work — and then to push them out when no longer needed. An estimated 60 to 70 percent of California’s 400,000 agricultural workers are undocumented and only 10,000 are unionized.

Legislation excludes them from most labor protections. Growers often pay at piece rates and often below minimum wage. Trump continues to scapegoat immigrants to distract from his failure to curtail the pandemic and prevent capitalist losses. Now he wants to cut the already low wages of guest workers, but just bailed out their bosses with a $16 billion stimulus.

Twenty thousand guest workers are employed through the H-2A temporary visa program. It obligates employers to provide housing and transportation, but facilities are overcrowded and unsanitary. Since field work is based on how fast you work there is no distancing or time for hand washing.

Rising fightback. This pandemic presents a unique opportunity for all workers to stand in solidarity with the most oppressed. Strikes have begun among low-paid grocery and fast food workers, and nurses demanding personal protective equipment (PPE), hazard pay and extended sick leave.

United Food and Commercial Workers International Union condemned Congress for passing a relief bill which failed to provide real assistance to millions of grocery workers and their families. United Farm Workers Union wrote an “open letter” to Congress expressing their concern for the health of farmworkers. Los Angeles mayor, Eric Garcetti, said Congress needs to provide relief to 2.5 million undocumented immigrants in the state, which includes 375,000 in the city of Los Angeles.

In Los Angeles County it is estimated that 650,000 undocumented workers are unemployed. California Governor Newsom recently provided some relief to them. But it will not even pay a month’s rent.

Organized labor has the power. Ultimately, militant unionists will make a difference for essential workers, who are mostly women and men of color. They can demand that Gov. Newsom prohibit piece-work wages, set an hourly wage of $17, and establish immediate health standards that require employers to provide all farmworkers with personal protective equipment and a social distancing environment.

It is time for labor to organize the unorganized and tell Trump “no pay cuts.” Union activists, with support from community groups, can win victories for documented and undocumented. They should demand employers provide:

  • Free healthcare for farmworkers and families
  • Sick and hazard pay
  • Sanitary handwashing stations
  • Immediate citizenship for all who desire it
  • Honest investigations of non-compliance

Providers of our food deserve deep respect. If the president or agribusiness gets away with cutting wages of the poorest of the poor, it can happen to anyone. Those on the frontlines have a right to work without risking their lives. They must not fear death, or worry how they are going to feed, clothe, and shelter their families. It’s what all workers deserve. And that most certainly includes field and orchard workers!

¡Adelante en solidaridad!

Yolanda Alaniz, originally from Yakima Valley, is the Coordinator of the L.A. Comrades of Color Caucus and a retired librarian. Contact her at Yoli.alaniz@yahoo.com.

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