Migrant Farmworkers, the Labor Movement, and the Devastation of the Coronavirus Pandemic

Originally distributed by Overground Collective

Rural America is often portrayed as a White, right-wing caricature for the amusement of those on the outside looking in.

This is wrong, as it erases the over 10 million Black and non-White people who call the countryside home—including families like mine. And under pandemic conditions, this erasure is even more problematic.

Rural America, and its large migrant farmworker population, provides much of the produce we rely on. Those same farmworkers lack full protection under the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938.

The Act guarantees basic labor rights such as overtime pay and a federal minimum wage. Both would have a substantial impact on farmworkers during the increasingly challenging working conditions since the pandemic began.

I am not a migrant farmworker. But my parents were farmworkers well into their young adult years, moving between Michigan, Texas, Florida, and likely other states, too.

Back in spring, when news channels reported on the spread of coronavirus slowing in the summer, I was skeptical.

So, when my county made the news for 183 cases traced to agriculture-related work, I was sick to my stomach. And I couldn’t help but worry about the workers, as 103 of those cases came from just two farms.

Adding to my worry was a study published by MIT estimating the total number of U.S. cases could be 12 times greater than what is reported.

Latinxs, who make up over one-third of the farmworker labor force, are disproportionately affected by the virus. We represent 73 cases per 10,000, compared to 23 cases per 10,000 for our White counterparts.

Compounding the increased pressure on the Latinx community, and farmworkers, in particular, is the fact that as a demographic group, we have historically received insufficient, low-quality healthcare services.

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And even before the crisis, rural hospitals relied on elective services to keep them running. Access to healthcare has only worsened for farmworkers.

Due to loopholes in the original CARES Act, a third of rural hospitals found themselves ineligible for PPP loans because they are government-owned entities or part of large healthcare systems exceeding the 500 employee limit. Without those funds coming in, they are dangerously unprepared.

Unless Congress passes Sen. Doug Jones’ bill, which provides rural hospitals with access to PPP loans, patients will have to be transferred to large city hospitals or risk getting trapped in an unending queue.

At this point, the lack of labor protections for farmworkers is indisputable. Without those protections, workers are driven to do whatever is necessary to provide for their families.

It is no coincidence that only one percent of farmworkers are represented by a labor union, and that over half of undocumented immigrant workers are farmworkers.

Their exclusion is not a natural occurrence of traditional labor organizing. Instead, agricultural association lawyers argue overtime pay is “ill-suited” for farmworkers because they are “seasonal.”

The job may be seasonal. Being a farmworker is not.
The divide between farmworkers and organized labor makes the call for solidarity between the two greater than ever.

We need solutions that not only meet this moment in time, but that ensure a more equitable future. Arundhati Roy wrote the pandemic “is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.”

Sure, we can raise awareness about farmworkers by sharing videos showcasing their unbelievable productivity. And while it’s much appreciated, it’s simply not enough to “Shop Local.”

If farmworkers are ever to see substantive, lasting improvements in working conditions, they need power.

So, where does a reawakened labor movement go in the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression?

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Today’s most active unions have achieved higher wages for all workers, but increased union membership has not followed suit.
Of course, a reinvigorated, militant labor movement must include traditional sectors. But it should also incorporate historically excluded groups, such as farmworkers, freelancers, gig workers, and care workers in its mission from the onset.

The destiny of all workers is interlinked, no matter the work they do. Whether it’s Uber drivers in cities or farmworkers in counties like mine, no occupational divisions should disrupt that.

Without a robust labor movement that emphasizes our camaraderie and accountability for one another, the coronavirus will continue being assessed as a threat to individuals.

A strong labor movement won’t immediately fix the public health crisis, nor fix hospital capacities.

It will, on the other hand, guarantee that we confront this crisis and the havoc it’s wreaking on farmworkers with the attention it deserves.

Everybody ought to have access to healthcare. That means testing, treatment, and recovery time, regardless of the work they do.

Jarod Facundo is a writer who lives in West Michigan. He is a former Next Leader for the Institute for Policy Studies. You can keep up with him via Twitter @dorajfacundo.