Standing in solidarity with farmworkers: National farmworker awareness week is March 25 – 31, 2020

By: Olivia Garcia Ph.D. and Rosie Hidalgo JD,  Esperanza United

National Farmworker Awareness Week occurs during the last week of March (March 25-31) and is typically a time when national and local campaigns honor farmworkers who provide the nation with nutritious food while also raising awareness about the need to improve policies that impact farmworkers. As the country is learning in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the labor of farmworkers is critical, yet they and their work have not been properly valued. Policy decisions must include and address the unique issues that impact different communities, including those faced by farmworkers.

Farmworkers have tremendous courage and dedication and yet are often one of the most vulnerable populations in the United States, toiling in obscurity although they are considered “essential employees” as the nation enjoys the fruits of their labor each day. It is important, especially during this time of crisis, to stand in solidarity and help advocate for improvements in the rights and protections for farmworkers.  This week organizations representing the interests of the estimated two to three million US farmworkers sent a letter to Congressional leadership outlining critical policy recommendations to address the pressing health and welfare concerns of the farmworker community, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic.  Additional organizations can sign on here and an updated letter will be shared with all members of Congress on March 31 (Cesar Chavez Day).

Farmworkers earn poverty wages, work long hours under substandard conditions, are denied many protections provided to other employees, and face a myriad of health issues including pesticide exposure, as well as other issues due to their living and employment conditions. Additionally, agricultural workers are excluded from such basic protections as overtime pay and the right to collective bargaining.

As documented in a 2012 report by Human Rights Watch, Cultivating Fear, “hundreds of thousands of women and girls in the United States today work in fields, packing houses, and other agricultural workplaces where they face a real and significant risk of sexual violence and sexual harassment.” There are high levels of sexual violence and harassment in agricultural workplaces because of a severe imbalance of power between supervisors and workers, and the systemic barriers that often prevent the report of this abuse. Often times workers are concerned with retaliation from their employers, worried about detention or deportation, often are not aware of their rights, and encounter additional barriers to accessing victim services and support.

Agricultural workers also face a variety of barriers to accessing health care due to long working hours, lack of sick leave, lack of language accessibility, lack of access to health insurance, and issues regarding immigration status. Costs remain a major obstacle for farmworkers to access health care and only 35% of farmworkers report having insurance. Whereas community health centers are a primary source of medical care for most agricultural workers, during this pandemic most community health centers will not have sufficient resources to meet the demands. If workers get injured or become ill at work, they may be eligible for workers’ compensation but that varies greatly from state to state. Farmworkers who need sick time may lose their seasonal job and possibly future work opportunities as well.

Additionally, what is largely unknown about the agricultural industry is that children play a significant role in the labor force but do not have the same rights and protections as children working in other sectors.  “Children at the age of 12 can legally work unlimited hours on farms of any size with parental permission as long as they don’t miss school,” according to Margaret Wurth, a Senior Researcher for the Children’s Right Division of the Human Rights Watch. She further adds that at age 16, children working in agriculture can perform job functions that health and safety experts consider hazardous. In other industries, young people must be at least 18 to perform hazardous work.  According to the Government Accountability Report, November 2018, approximately 87,000 children under the age of 18 are engaged in agricultural work, and approximately 30% are female. The GAO report also found that over 50% of all the work-related child fatalities occur in the agriculture industry. Since schools have been suspended due to the current COVID-19 pandemic, children will face increased risks of having to work on farms without adequate protections and at greater risk of exploitation, including risks of sexual harassment and sexual assault.

Representative Roybal-Allard (CA-40) has introduced legislation to help protect children working in the agricultural industry through the Children’s Act for Responsible Employment and Farm Safety of 2019 (CARE Act).  The critical need for this legislation is highlighted in her Dear Colleague letter on the CARE Act.

In order to collaborate with farm workers and educate the public about these working conditions, Justice for Migrant Women has amplified efforts to raise awareness through the Bandana Project, where individuals decorate white bandanas with words of encouragement, motivating statements, inspirational pictures and art.  The bandanas are then hung in public places as a visible demonstration of solidarity for farmworker women. To become a partner, click here.

It is necessary to stand in solidarity with farmworkers, including the women and children who help feed us. It is clear that agricultural workers do not have the same protections as workers in other industries and that this population is a highly vulnerable to exploitation. Learn more about the important advocacy being done by Justice for Migrant Women and Farmworker Justice, among others. Please review the NFAW social media toolkit and graphics and share it with your networks. We hope that during this National Farmworker Awareness Week (and throughout the year) you can help lift up the voices of farmworkers.