This is the second in a series by Bec Sloane, spotlighting experiences of migrant farmworkers in the U.S. amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

by Bec Sloane

As the medical community scrambles to tame this pandemic, a swath of essential workers remains missing from our conversations. Migrant farmworkers, already distanced from the general public amid fears of deportation, live in deeper isolation than the quarantined recipients of the fruit of their labor.

Strapped with a suite of socioeconomic hardships any year, farmworkers now meet with unprecedented risks as they are kept working and, largely, kept quiet. Experiencing a heightened degree of lockdown on par with the detention conditions they fear, many live in the shadow of the crop they harvest.

“If employers in any industry were to tell their American workers, ‘You cannot leave your worksite,’ there would be a societal outcry.”

In Cheriton, VA, Lipman Family Farms has its tomato pickers on strict lockdown to limit the virus’ reach and shield the harvest. Beyond housing camps and harvest fields, any semblance of normal life is dwindling. As Miriam Jordan conveyed for the Times, workers liken their worksite to prison grounds, their jobs to slave labor.

Restrictions dealt by growers have gone as far as cutting workers off from outings for provisions, or laundering heavily worn work clothes. Jason Yarashes, lead attorney for Legal Aid Justice Center notes most employers could not get away with this “but, for farmworkers, this level of control is deemed acceptable.”

"Our food is sacred...we cannot eat what is just forced upon us."

Further down the east coast, Facing South’s Dakota Hall and Leticia Zavala argue that what workers eat may not register as a pressing issue alongside virus concerns, but there is more to be said about what we are feeding those who keep us fed.

Growers are required to provide H-2A workers with a meal plan or kitchen facility. But in one NC region, weekly plans cost a baffling $80 per person, an amount that “can feed a family of four in Mexico for two weeks.”

Supervisors often lock kitchens, forcing dependence on the plans. “Degraded and dispirited”, workers are stripped of the small luxury of cooling drinks or heating food, let alone maintaining healthy diets to sustain them through grueling work.

“Our community is not trusting systems right now.”

Elsewhere in NC are equally appalling injustices in housing, an issue long before the pandemic. Migrants often live in tight quarters with other families, unable to afford otherwise, only to pile into buses for their commute. Lariza Garzón (Episcopal Farmworker Ministry) insists we address matters “not just with pandemics, but other emergencies […] This issue is systemic. We need to think about systemic solutions.”

Grappling with systemic barriers runs deeply for immigrant and migrant workers. Rebecca Plevin (Desert Sun) reminds us most workers are uninsured, or work despite being symptomatic as the need to provide for families remains a constant driving force. This is coupled with a fear of compromised citizenship by utilizing services. Reyna Alvarez, mother of three, was fired for leaving her employer-provided housing to seek virus treatment, then reported to authorities.

Luz Gallegos, director of TODEC, stresses the need for education about the confidentiality of health providers.

“Our people aren’t interested in being tested.”

Meanwhile, claims from growers offering insights should be met with a raised eyebrow; this is a fiercely protected industry with an underprotected workforce, and regions insisting safety measures are in place are not necessarily enforcing compliance.

Chronicling the inactions of growers from Florida to Washington, Laura Riley and Beth Reinhard echo cries of advocacy groups calling for accountability. They cite orchard owners declining testing, foremen having crews hide diagnoses, growers with little incentive to bother with tracing as workers will soon enough “become someone else’s problem”.

After Jeannette Evans, owner of one of the biggest orchards in WA, insisted all was well among her workers, Yakima Health District received an anonymous complaint: “They were being told to wear a mask because of the inspection even though they had not been wearing one for 4 months.”

“The world needs to know us better.”

In Chasing the Harvest (2017), author and journalist Gabriel Thompson gathered first-hand experiences of migrants throughout CA’s Coachella and Central Valleys. Among them, farmworker Roberto Valdez shares an important perspective: many men and women in the fields are proud of the work they do.

“We’re happy to work, we do so with love, and the coronavirus won’t stop us...We know that our work supports the whole nation.”

But Valdez does not shy away from relaying grim realities. He recounts his 16-year-old son suffering a heat stroke after which he was never the same: “It was a lie they’d taken him to a doctor. The supervisor had taken Angel to a truck with air conditioning, put ice under his armpits.”

When Thompson caught up with him in May, Valdez was detailing the need to wear and wash multiple masks through the heat, and abbreviated interactions with coworkers that used to include shared meals and encouraging pats on the back.

Governor Gavin Newsom has proposed giving undocumented immigrants $500 each, and Valdez calls out those suing against the motion: “I’d like these people to come out and meet us.” Thompson offers us a hand with that through his interviews. It’s time we grab hold, and listen in.

Photo credit: Molly Page

Bec Sloane is a visual arts professional and educator pivoting into the agroecological sphere. Through research, collaboration and content creation, she is building bridges to foster fruitful communications between the general public and those working in the agricultural and environmental sectors.