Despite the risk of contagion due to COVID-19, hundreds of thousands put on their sandals and bathing suits, applied sunscreen and started enjoying the beaches to celebrate Labor Day, the long holiday that marks the end of summer. In agricultural fields, 3 million farmworkers spend these days very differently.
In California, where temperatures have exceeded 100 degrees in recent weeks, entire families of farmers continue their tireless work in the blazing sun to harvest the fresh fruits and vegetables that we have on our table. Worse still, America’s top food-producing state is being ravaged by devastating wildfires that have engulfed more than 2 million acres.
“Farmworkers continue to work without having the necessary equipment to protect themselves,” says Teresa Romero, President of the United Farm Workers. “The masks that we have been distributing are to protect against COVID, but not from the poor quality that exists in the air due to fires.”
Although specific guidelines have been issued to protect farmworkers, they are not being fully implemented in all agricultural fields. Farmers have a phrase that sums up their working conditions before and during the pandemic: “The laws on the books … are not the laws in the fields.“
The reality is that in the wake of the pandemic the federal government recognizes agricultural workers as essential workers for the first time, but has excluded those who are undocumented from receiving any federal benefits. This is what happened with the financial rescue packages approved by Congress. This exclusion includes workers who are citizens or legal residents, whose spouse is undocumented, or those undocumented with children who were born in the US.
“It was a great injustice,” says Daniel Garza, President of The Libre Initiative and son of a family of farmworkers, when referring to US citizens who did not receive the federal support check simply because their partner did not have legal status in the US.
“When a government imposes rules, when it makes restrictions on employment, on work, on opportunities, it must compensate the person who is affected, including undocumented people,” Daniel said in Mano a Mano, the new weekly political program of La Red Hispana.
Congress has the power to reevaluate that injustice immediately. The Senate returned to session this week after summer recess. On the table is the rescue package approved by the House of Representatives that includes support for the anonymous heroes of the pandemic. Those essential workers are putting in all their effort and risking their health; the least they deserve is a basic act of justice and reciprocity.