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If Migrant Farm and Food Workers are Essential, Let’s Value their Labor

By Cynthia Cranford


The importance of one of the most hidden and under-valued of reproductive laborers, farm and food processing workers, has become evident during the Coronavirus pandemic. Newspaper reports in the early days of the pandemic prompted a conversation on how the food security of citizens of rich countries in North American and Europe depend on migrant labor from poorer countries in Eastern Europe, Latin America, Asia and Africa.  For example, as migrant workers were banned the French Agricultural Minister Didier Guillaume interviewed by New York Times reporters Alderman, Eddy and Tsang called upon citizens to come work on farms to “feed the French”, and similar calls were made by governments and the farm industry in Spain, Britain and Germany. In this context, the skill of uprooting vegetables, plucking strawberries and collecting peaches without damaging them was recognized but the skilled workers who normally do this work were not. In the U.S. state of Georgia, one poultry plant owner told workers “they had to work to feed America”, even if they were sick, according to New York Times reporters Jordan and Dickerson who interviewed a young woman whose mother died of the virus. The focus on either rich country citizens’ food insecurity, or farm owners’ difficulties producing food without migrant workers or under heightened labor protections required by coronavirus, rather than the precarity of the migrant farm workers, reinforces racial divisions of citizenship that organize this labor.

Other articles documented how coronavirus negatively affected migrant farm workers, ranging from the inability of the mostly undocumented farm workers to afford the food they pick in California, given that they are paid so low and do not qualify for relief money, to the greater risk of contracting the virus due to cramped working and housing conditions. One MacArthur Foundation fellow Greg Asbed, writing in the New York Times, likened the conditions on Florida farms to Upton Sinclair’s vivid description of the link between the tenements, meatpacking houses and tuberculosis in The Jungle. Farmworkers have been designated essential workers but are “protected by little more than hope” to quote Asbed, indicating how this designation defends citizen’s food security but not the migrant workers who produce it.

As Alma Patty Tzalain, a Guatemalan migrant farmworker in New York and leader of the grass-roots organization Alianza Agricola, said in a New York Times Opinion piece, migrant workers “sacrifice so much for a country that doesn’t value our lives.” In this article, Tzalain documents how most migrant farm workers in New York are undocumented or temporary workers, who do not have health insurance, and for whom other protections are not enforced given the threat of deportation. But workers like Tzalain and others are organizing for enforceable health and safety protections and hazard pay. In Canada, there are similar problems with migrant farm workers’ lack of access to medical treatment, high rates of infections, deaths and lack of coverage by the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit according to Toronto Star reporter,  Teresa Wright. There advocates focus on secure status for migrant farm workers who come seasonally on temporary visas mostly from Mexico and Caribbean countries. This is part of a broader campaign calling for status for all non-permanent workers who have been working throughout the pandemic as ‘essential workers.’

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