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Essential or Expendable? Farmworkers Condemn Lack of Protection and Economic Help During Pandemic

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Image Credit: Facebook: Coalition of Immokalee Workers

As the coronavirus sweeps through the United States, the country’s 2.5 million farmworkers are continuing to go to work every day, often facing crowded and unsanitary conditions without personal protective equipment, for poverty wages. We speak with Gerardo Reyes Chávez, a farmworker leader with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, who describes the conditions farmworkers in Florida are facing and how they are calling on Florida Governor Ron DeSantis to protect farmworkers during the COVID-19 crisis, and with Mónica Ramírez, president and founder of Justice for Migrant Women and co-founder of the National Farmworkers Women’s Alliance.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman in New York. Juan González is in New Jersey.

As the coronavirus continues to sweep through the U.S., with more than half a million confirmed cases, nearly 24,000 people dead, the country’s two-and-a-half million farmworkers are continuing to go to work every day, often facing crowded and unsanitary conditions without personal protective gear, for poverty wages. It’s these farmworkers who are maintaining the food supply and keeping Americans fed during the pandemic. Despite this, the Trump administration is working to slash the wages of migrant farmworkers. The plan, led by White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows and Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, would actually lower pay for some quarter of a million foreign guest laborers, even though they’ve been declared essential workers. H-2A visa holders make up some 10% of U.S. farmworkers.

Meanwhile, from Florida to California, farmworkers and their advocates are demanding better protections in the fields. The United Farm Workers union is calling on agricultural employers to offer child care, extended sick leave, increased sanitation for workers. This is Bertha Morales, a farmworker who harvests cilantro in Oxnard, California.

BERTHA MORALES: [translated] We are afraid to get sick, because if someone in the family gets sick, you know, they say that with one being infected, they can quarantine everybody. And that’s what we’re afraid of, because if that were to happen, what are we going to do? Who’s going to go out to work?

AMY GOODMAN: For more, we go across the country to Immokalee, Florida, where we’re joined by Gerardo Reyes Chávez, a farmworker leader with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. As of this broadcast, more than 23,000 people have signed the CIW’s petition calling on Florida Governor Ron DeSantis to protect farmworkers during the COVID-19 crisis. The petition says, quote, “Make no mistake: Immokalee is like dry tinder in the path of a wildfire.”

Gerardo Reyes Chávez, welcome back to Democracy Now! Can you please describe the conditions that farmworkers in Florida are facing, and what you’re demanding in response?

GERARDO REYES CHÁVEZ: Yeah. Thank you for having us, Amy. These are, no doubt, dire times for the entire world.

As workers, we have been asking the local government, the state government, to take action and prepare for the spread of COVID-19 in our community. And we have met with just deaf ears. People here, in terms of government, are not responding in any positive way with us, anything that is going to help us be ready for this.

The cases of COVID-19 started to spread several days ago. More than a week ago, there was announced that there were some cases here in our community. And right now they said that there’s 13 cases as of yesterday. This is something that we are highly doubtful, just because, you know, all of these cases happened in a context in which there were no tests available for our community. They just happened also.

So, for us, this is hugely problematic, because we have been seeing how in our community there hasn’t been any real efforts to try to help anyone. We, as workers, travel to work in crowded buses. We live in overcrowded spaces. You know, many of the people that come to work in the fields are people who are living inside trailers with five, eight or 10 people, sometimes even more. And we are expected to go to do this work because our job has been deemed essential. But the people who’s doing this job are treated as expendable, because no personal protective equipment has been given, no tests have been made available.

And that’s one of the things that we have been asking. And as you were mentioning, you know, we sent a letter to Governor Ron DeSantis, and we started to petition that has been spearheaded by Change.org. Lots of people, over 100 organizations — 180 organizations, I think — have signed it, and more than 23,000 people have signed it also, asking for the governor to dedicate the resources that are needed to build a field hospital or to repurpose a facility, so that people that start to show severe symptoms of COVID-19 can be treated. But so far, there hasn’t been any concrete response to this. We have also asked for the public resources to be allocated for our community in this moment of crisis. Nothing significant has been done.

We continue to see how we are just seeing this catastrophe unfold in our community with any kind of protection, but still, instead of offering a solution to this problem, we are met with just news of workers that are producing the food in the national level, with these proposals of cutting wages instead of the —

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Gerardo, I wanted to ask you — in terms of the farmworkers, most Americans are not aware that still a significant portion of farmworker labor are foreign workers under the H-2A program. Could you talk about them and their situation, as well?

GERARDO REYES CHÁVEZ: Yeah. I mean, for farmworkers that come here under H-2A, there’s more and more, actually, workers that are working in different companies. And just to give you a sense — you know, we talked about this before — 90% of the tomatoes and many of the fruits and vegetables that are consumed right now in the country, between November to May, are produced by people like the people of Immokalee. And this production is so key to be able to keep everything else functioning. That’s why our job has been deemed essential. We’re a critical workforce. But we’re not treated in that way.

During the months of November to May — and June, depending on where you are working — many workers come from Mexico, mainly, to work in the fields. And there is a big part of workers here from Guatemala, that are here under political asylum, also working in the fields, and from Haiti. So, combined, we are the labor force that is making it possible for all the food to move up north, especially now with the crisis — and New York being the epicenter — needing all of these incredibly important resources right now, while at the same time resources are being denied by the federal government, the state and local government, for us to be able to be protected.

We are talking about doing this essential job, and we are going to be unable very soon if attention is not placed where it matters, which is, protecting the workforce that you are deeming as essential. Because we are, you know? We are an essential workforce. Independently of being here under H-2A or not, everyone who’s working in the fields needs to be treated in the same way. But what we —

AMY GOODMAN: And as President Trump hails the stimulus package and the relief that’s going out to some people, the same Trump administration, Mark Meadows, the Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue are pushing to cut the wages of H-2A workers. Even if they’re 10% of the workforce, won’t that put a downward pressure on cutting all the wages, as they talk about saving the farmers? If you can talk about the effect that this will have, them saying they’re cutting the wages of people at the lowest end of the wage spectrum?

GERARDO REYES CHÁVEZ: Yeah. I mean, they say that crisis and pressure can bring the best in people and also the bad, the worst. I think the government is just showing us how much they do not care about the people who make the food for every family in this country possible.

And this is just going to exacerbate the problems that we have always had. We don’t have a hospital here in town. We have a clinic. The closest hospital is about 40 minutes away. We don’t have transportation to go to a hospital, either. And instead of building the infrastructure that’s desperately needed to respond to this crisis that’s unfolding in front of our eyes, you know, this is going to start very soon to show the dramatic effect of how a virus can spread in a community where you don’t have the luxury of the social distancing, you don’t have the ability to keep six feet away while doing this work, and you don’t have the protection that you need while being transported from your living quarters to the fields and back. And because of that, you are exposed, 24/7. So, when you think about that and the fact that you don’t have a hospital, the fact that you don’t have any kind of resources dedicated to you in a meaningful way — you know, because one thing is to talk about it, to talk about mitigating —

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Gerardo, I wanted to ask you, because we only have a few more minutes — but I wanted to ask you in terms of what kind of support have the farmworkers been getting from other sectors of the Florida progressive community, because it’s very important to focus in on ways that people can help each other. What can be — other than signing a petition, what are some concrete ways that you can get — that other folks can assist the efforts that you are doing with the farmworkers?

AMY GOODMAN: And the demands you’re making of the governor?

GERARDO REYES CHÁVEZ: Yeah. Well, something that people can do is if you have the expertise in working and putting together a field hospital. We recognize that the government is maybe not going to come to do anything in our community. We hope that they do. We are asking the Collier County government to step in. And they said that they have a plan, but they have not yet developed or shown what that plan is. So, we’re asking people to get in touch with us if you think that there’s a possibility in which you could help us with resources to be able to put together what’s needed to respond to this as soon as possible. There’s organizations that have signed onto this, many organizations that are working and trying to see how we can work together. And we would be happy to connect everyone, including the people from the county, to try to come up with a solution, if that’s at all possible.

One thing that we are asking from the governor in the letter — there’s four main things that we’re asking. One is the construction of a field hospital or the repurposing of anything that can serve to place intensive care units for those people who need it. We also want the personal protective equipment, if we’re expected to continue to do this work, something that is readily available for workers to be able to protect themselves as much as possible. We want free and accessible coronavirus testing for all of our community, not just those who show symptoms, because, as we heard, you know, there were news about this Smithfield —

AMY GOODMAN: Gerardo, we have 30 seconds.

GERARDO REYES CHÁVEZ: How this Smithfield plant that was closed because everyone — most of the workers were sick. Here, we only hear about 13 cases because tests was not available. So, the funds are necessary to be allocated to support Florida farmworkers, instead of slashing their wages. That’s what we need. And we need people to help us push the government to do what’s necessary.

AMY GOODMAN: Gerardo Reyes Chávez, I want to thank you for being with us, farmworker leader with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, speaking to us from Immokalee, Florida. In a minute, we’re going to bring Mónica Ramírez into the conversation, president and founder of Justice for Migrant Women, co-founder and president of The Latinx House, co-founder of the National Farmworkers Women’s Alliance. But first I want to turn to more voices of farmworkers. This is a strawberry field worker who wished to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation.

STRAWBERRY FIELD WORKER: [translated] For me, the coronavirus just means regular daily life, because I have to leave to go to work. I have children in the house. Sometimes I’m afraid I will get sick. … Even with the obstacle of coronavirus, I cannot leave my work. I can’t keep myself in quarantine, because I need to earn a living to support my family.

AMY GOODMAN: And this is Juan Antione, a farmworker in the city of Oxnard, California.

JUAN ANTIONE: [translated] We’re worried about our health and everybody else’s, but I worry that they might stop us from working, because we live day by day, and the money we make is not enough to pay for bills, rent, and feed our kids.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined right now by Mónica Ramírez, president and founder of Justice for Migrant Women, co-founder and president of The Latinx House, as well as a number of other titles, including co-founder of the National Farmworkers Women’s Alliance. Mónica, if you can talk specifically about female farmworkers and the challenges they’re facing now?

MÓNICA RAMÍREZ: Sure. Thanks for having me on the show. One of the things that we’re hearing from farmworker women is that given that they don’t have child care, many of them are having to quit their jobs, which means that if they’re living in a two-income household, their salaries have immediately been cut in half. They’re feeling extremely stressed out about the fact that they don’t have enough food to feed their children. They often can’t make it to the places where they’re doing food delivery, because they don’t have transportation. And having their income cut in half has come at a huge cost to their families. They’re also concerned that if they have to — if they are working and they need to miss work for any reason, to care for their children or otherwise, that they’ll just be fired, and they won’t have an opportunity to work at their farm again in the future.

The other thing that we’re hearing from people is that their children are talking to them about being afraid to die. They’re afraid that they’re going to get sick, that their parents are going to get sick, and they’re asking a lot of questions, and they don’t have enough information. So there’s a lot of anxiety and stress, in addition to the fact that they don’t have enough food for their own families, and they’re not making the money that they need to survive.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Mónica, I wanted to ask you — the Ohio Governor Mike DeWine has been one of the few Republican governors who’s sort of bucked President Trump on several occasions in term of how to deal with the coronavirus pandemic. I’m wondering what your sense is of what the governor — whether the governor has taken into account at all the plight of farmworkers in Ohio.

MÓNICA RAMÍREZ: Thanks. Yeah, you know, I believe that the governor is a leader on this issue in taking really important steps to ensure that the people in Ohio are safe and healthy. As an organization that’s based here in Ohio, we are in the process of communicating with the governor about exactly the steps that need to be taken to ensure that the farmers have what they need, to have the workforce that they need, and that the workers are also protected in the meantime. And we do believe that the state of Ohio can show the kind of leadership that is needed for the rest of the country, to make sure that we have the food that we need to eat, but that it’s not at the expense of the workers’ health who are picking the food.

AMY GOODMAN: On Sunday, The New York Times, Mónica, ran an article titled “Empty Shelves, But Farms Put Food to Waste,” says tons of milk — I think something like 750,000 eggs were smashed, and produce being buried and dumped.

MÓNICA RAMÍREZ: That’s right.

AMY GOODMAN: On the one hand, you have this food being dumped and destroyed. And on the other hand, you have hours-long lines at food pantries, at the other end of the food supply chain. Can we wrap with that?

MÓNICA RAMÍREZ: Yeah. You know, I saw that article, too, and we’d been hearing that, that farmers were going to have to dump products. And the first question that came to mind is, you know, if the federal government intends to help the agricultural industry because the agricultural industry has so much need, as we’ve been hearing President Trump say and others say that they want to make sure that they are helping farmers, what we say, “Then help the people who are going hungry because they’re not working. Help the farmworkers who don’t have enough food to feed their families.”

You know, I think that the government should be in serious consideration of buying those products from the farmers who are having to dump the products because they can’t sell them to the restaurants and other places that ordered them or that used to need them, because there are food banks and, as we’ve seen, lines of people who are waiting to get products. And, you know, I was in communication with an outreach worker in Florida last week, and she told me that 500 farmworkers showed up at a local church to get food, and 300 farmworkers went home empty-handed.

So, if we have a crisis in which there’s an overproduction of food and they can’t get to the restaurants and other places that used to buy them, well, we also have a crisis with the fact that there are people — not just farmworkers — around our country who are not sure where their next meal is going to come from. And it seems to me that it would be wise of the federal government to make an agreement with these farmers to buy the produce and the other items that they are going to dump, so that they can get those items to the families that need that food at this very moment.

AMY GOODMAN: Mónica Ramírez, thanks so much for being with us, president and founder of Justice for Migrant Women, co-founder and president of The Latinx House and co-founder of the National Farmworkers Women’s Alliance.

When we come back, we look at the spike in coronavirus infections at meatpacking plants — 350 workers at one pork plant in South Dakota. It’s almost half the number of infections in the entire state of South Dakota. Stay with us.

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