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28 Apr 2020

Commentary: failure to protect US agricultural workers endangers workers' health and food supplies

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“US food workers are in danger. That threatens all of us”, 14 April 2020

… [T]he Department of Homeland Security had classified [agricultural] workers … as “essential”, and part of the “critical infrastructure workforce” that has a “special responsibility to maintain [a] normal work schedule”.

… [However] relief measures recognizing their importance haven’t been offered. Congress’s $2tn pandemic stimulus package specifically excludes food workers, leaving them without basic safety equipment ... benefits like healthcare and childcare, protections like physical distancing, and hazard pay. Food workers have also been left out of state aid.

… [F]ood workers labor shoulder-to-shoulder …   pack into buses to and from … harvest sites. They share cramped rooms, even beds, with strangers, and lack ventilation or access to sanitation.

Yet for many food workers, absence from work due to illness risks termination. … Essential food workers are paid minimum wages while enduring perilous conditions…

“We’re in a country where people want our labor but don’t care about our lives. Our human rights have been denied, but our work is being deemed essential …” explained Enrique Balcazar, an organizer with Migrant Justice…

… This raises an urgent question: When we don’t protect workers who pick, process, and pack our food, what will happen to our food supply and all of us?

Chuck Grassley, the Senate finance chairman, told Bloomberg Law: “I don’t think anybody’s going to back legislation that would say we’re going to start giving healthcare to undocumented workers.” …

“In order to ‘flatten the curve’, the government needs to provide resources to those who don’t have the possibility of social distancing and sheltering in place. It’s immoral to expect that we carry the burden of this contradiction,” asserted Gerardo Reyes, a leader of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers …

Essential workers in US fields and processing plants are experts in what is needed to safeguard their own health and safety … Worker participation in the design of their protections would create a more robust, resilient food system that could weather this and future pandemics.