Migrant Farmworkers Face Twin Risks: Wildfires And COVID-19

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Migrant workers harvest strawberries at a farm near Oxnard, California. (Joe Klamar/AFP via Getty Images)
Migrant workers harvest strawberries at a farm near Oxnard, California. (Joe Klamar/AFP via Getty Images)

Migrant farmworkers are having a very difficult year.

Their work in the nation's fields is already hard, but in 2020, they're also dealing with the pandemic and record-breaking wildfires on the West Coast. Those fires have created extremely unhealthy air quality for anyone working outside.

Farmworkers have historically faced rights abuses at the hands of their employers, including wage theft and being forced to work in hazardous conditions. The Fair Labor Standards Act and the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection only provide limited protection.

Estimates show there are about 2 million to 3 million farmworkers in the U.S. with “the overwhelming majority of those being of Mexican and Mexican American descent,” says Monica Ramirez, president and founder of the nonprofit Justice for Migrant Women. About a million of those workers are women.

All Americans are touched by farmworkers because we all need to eat, which is something we can’t overlook now in the middle of a pandemic, Ramirez says.

“We all need to care about the well-being of farmworkers because farmworkers feed us,” she says. “Farmworkers in our nation have been denied the basic rights and protections that other workers have been afforded for more than 80 years. And during this time, when farmworkers have been deemed essential workers, they've not been extended essential rights and benefits.”

Justice for Migrant Women has raised more than $3 million to provide aid to farmworkers during the pandemic, which includes access to food, hand sanitizer and personal protective equipment such as masks, Ramirez says. Those funds were disbursed to organizations across the country to provide direct relief to farmworkers in their communities.

“Our organizations are also working really hard to make policymakers understand what it is that farmworkers are confronting as they consider policy proposals [and] that the farmworker community will not be left behind,” she says.

The organization is also working to provide PPE to farmworker children, thousands of which work in the fields alongside their families, Ramirez says. Justice for Migrant Women and its partner organizations are also working to help children succeed in virtual learning.

“Many are also working to ensure that our children are able to participate in their school lessons,” she says. “Many community members don't have access to broadband, and they don't have computers.”

Fighting for the rights of farmworkers is personal for Ramirez, who is the daughter and granddaughter of migrant farmworkers.

“My family used to travel the migrant stream around our country picking crops,” she says, “and my father started working when he was 8 years old, picking cotton alongside his siblings and my grandparents.”

Many farmworkers are migratory, while others engage in agricultural work during the seasons when certain crops in their area are available for harvest, Ramirez says. Eventually, her family moved to Ohio, where her parents paved the way for her and her siblings to be the first generation in their family not forced to migrate for work.

Still, issues impacting the farmworker community remain top of mind for her. She says many of the problems her parents faced in the field continue to plague farmworkers today.

The issues of food insecurity highlighted by the pandemic provide a stark reminder of why farmworkers need support awarded to other essential workers, she says.

“During this pandemic, we should ensure that they are getting the same kinds of care, benefits, resources and protections as other essential workers,” she says. “And so my plea to people across our country is to help tell the stories of the people who feed us and ensure that the political leaders understand that we all care about their well-being and that we all want our country to do better by them.”

Alex Ashlock produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Tinku Ray and Peter O'Dowd. Samantha Raphelson adapted it for the web.

This segment aired on October 6, 2020.


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Samantha Raphelson is an associate producer for Here & Now, based at NPR in Washington, D.C.



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