Migrant workers clean fields near Salinas, California, March 30. (CNS/Reuters/Shannon Stapleton)
WASHINGTON — As those working from home escalated their complaints or jokes on Twitter about Zoom meetings, the United Farm Workers of America offered a reality check March 20 in the form of tweet: “You can’t pick strawberries remotely.”
“The people who put food on our table do not get to telecommute,” the labor organization said in a mid-March statement calling attention to the plight of the country’s more than 2 million farmworkers.
There may be toilet paper shortages in U.S. supermarkets, but the country’s supply of fruit and vegetables and other staples such as meats and dairy produced by the labor of farmworkers — many of them migrants — remains steady thanks to those essential workers. Yet many of them toil without basic protections, their supporters say.
Even while facing lack of access to adequate health care or wages and immigration woes stemming from the H-2A visa program that allows some of them to work legally in the U.S., the largely unseen workers have kept, until now, the country’s food supply moving.
“The irony is that (now) they’re saying they are essential. They’ve always been essential,” said Carlos Marentes, founder and director of the Border Agricultural Workers Center in El Paso, Texas, in an April 14 interview with Catholic News Service.
They’re considered so essential that on April 15, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security announced a temporary easing of immigration regulations to allow businesses to employ them faster and for longer periods of time than before — an unusual move for an administration that has sought to curtail immigration.
In a statement, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said the temporary changes would help U.S. farmers who employ foreign farmworkers “avoid disruptions” in employment and “protect the nation’s food supply chain.”
No matter how important they are to the nation, however, there’s always been a “historical abandonment” of farmworkers, Marentes said, and this is a time to go beyond “sentimental blackmail” — offering praise for what farmworkers do, without also calling for protection for their rights.
Even though they’re considered essential workers, a looming threat some farmworkers are facing are efforts to lower their salaries at this critical time. Last year, the Trump administration proposed changes in how wages are calculated for those who use the H-2A visa program, essentially lowering their pay.
The H-2A program is a guest worker program, which allows agricultural employers to bring workers from other countries — primarily Mexico — to the U.S. to work on their farms, said Ashley Feasley, director of policy for Migration and Refugee Services at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
“The workers who produce our food are essential workers (roughly 2.5 million agricultural laborers total), and they have been declared so. Yet there are announcements from the White House about reducing the wages of guest workers,” she said in an April 14 email to CNS. “This is unjust to further exploit a population that is working to put food on people’s tables at this time.”
And many of them are scared, said Marentes.
As cities around the country — and the businesses that propelled them — began closing down abruptly in mid-March, farmworkers were told to continue toiling because they were important to keep the country moving. But because of stricter measures taken at border towns such as El Paso, Texas, those who worked in the U.S. but lived in Mexico could no longer cross at entry points as they had before to be with their families after their work shifts were over, Marentes said.
Organizations that work with the farmworker population, such as the Border Agricultural Worker Center, began mobilizing, writing letters for the farmworkers so they could carry documents with them saying who they were, where they worked, in case immigration or other authorities scrutinized them on their way to work, Marentes said. Community groups, like Marentes’ organization, also scrambled to secure some form of shelter and a place for them to bathe, find face masks and gloves, and give them a quick lesson on how to keep safe in the middle of a pandemic.