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Farmworkers like me are always the last to be protected in a crisis

Agricultural worker and organizer Lupe Gonzalo shares why workers (and, in turn, our food supply) are so vulnerable during the coronavirus.

Farmworkers like me are always the last to be protected in a crisis
[Photo: stevanovicigor/iStock]

As shelter-in-place orders swept the country in March, millions of Americans started working from home. But not everyone has the privilege of staying home as the coronavirus rages: An estimated 2.5 million farmworkers across the U.S. have been classified as essential workers. These workers, some of the most vulnerable to contracting the virus, continue toiling in the fields to put food on our tables.

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The community of Immokalee, Florida, is home to 25,000 farmworkers and the state’s thriving tomato industry, which is responsible for a third of the tomatoes produced across the U.S. Since 1993, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) has significantly improved working conditions for farmworkers in Florida, most of whom are migrant workers. Now, in the midst of the coronavirus crisis, the group has turned its attention to sounding the alarm on the lack of protections for farmworkers who live and work in close quarters. At the time of writing, a Change.org petition by CIW calling on Florida governor Ron DeSantis to help protect farmworkers has more than 22,000 signatures. (Another group, Justice for Migrant Women, has organized a relief fund to support farmworkers and their families.)

Lupe Gonzalo, an organizer at CIW who has been a farmworker for 12 years, talked with Fast Company through a translator about the risks faced by agricultural workers, both in the fields and at home, and what can be done to mitigate the spread of coronavirus in farming towns such as Immokalee. Her account has been edited for length and clarity.

“You’ll find up to 12 people in a single home.”

Agricultural workers are among the most vulnerable, not just in our homes, but also as we go out to work. The mobile homes where agricultural workers here live are overcrowded. You’ll find up to 12 people in a single home, [which] means four to five people in every room. So if one person gets sick, they’re going to infect everyone else. People go to work on buses where there are 40 or more people, so social isolation or social distancing is really almost impossible to do, both at home and at work.

Social distancing is really almost impossible to do, both at home and at work.”

Here in Immokalee, there’s no hospital. You have to go over an hour to get to the closest hospital, in Naples. There’s no transportation to get there, and what we’ve seen even in the past, even when we haven’t had this kind of crisis, is that we’re not given priority. And it’s very difficult for people to get tested. Those tests are not accessible for workers who are still going into the fields.

Even though agricultural workers are categorized as essential workers, there are no real protections for their health. When they’re going to this essential job, nobody is looking out for how they can better protect themselves—not the local government or state government. What we’re looking for is a way for people to continue to do this essential work, but in a dignified manner that also looks at them as human beings who deserve to have their health and safety taken care of.

“In the fields, workers generally don’t have a voice.”

For most workers, the day starts at 4 or 5 a.m. They go to a couple of local pickup spots and wait for the buses to come pick them up, and at 6 or 6:30, they’ll get on the bus and go out to the fields. These are old school buses, so there are usually [multiple] people per seat. You have close contact with the people around you. When you get out to the farm, everyone is working in rows, but there are two to three people for each row. So again, you’re in very close proximity to the people that you’re working with.

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At the end of the day, they get back on the bus. And these are buses that are not commonly cleaned. Maybe now and then they’ll sweep them out, but they’re contaminated, especially if there’s somebody who’s sick. You’re riding then, again, back home in the buses and getting to your house, where you’re in close quarters with people who [may] have been working on other farms, in close proximity with other people—and you’re there with your children.

Most workers have absolutely no safety net.”

Farmworkers receive pretty low wages. [They’re] living not even paycheck-to-paycheck, but really day-to-day. People are looking to work seven days a week so that they can pay their bills and rent, which is extremely high, even for those trailers. So covering basic needs when there’s not a crisis is already difficult. Most workers have absolutely no safety net.

In the fields, workers generally don’t have a voice. The Fair Food Program is a partnership we have with a number of the large growers in the area to respect the rights of their workers. It gives workers a voice on some farms, but not all. On many, many farms, workers don’t have a way to speak up. In a noncoronavirus time, they’re already silent; they’re not able to ask for drinking water or other basic human rights. In this time, [they’re not] going to be able to demand that their bosses have additional places for them to wash their hands or ask for other protective gear.

“We’ve worked very hard to make Immokalee a place where people’s rights are respected.”

We’re trying to spread the word to the community about how to protect themselves. When we saw that it was on the horizon—before the shelter in place had happened here—we started putting up fliers all around town in local stores and other places. We’re constantly putting information out on our Facebook page, and our community radio station has really taken up the goal of informing the community about how they can take care of themselves and what resources are out there.

We’ve also been working with the growers who are part of the Fair Food Program. The growers that are participating in the Fair Food Program are taking some measures to lower the risks for their workforce—for example, providing more buses, so there are fewer people in each bus and they’re able to spread out more. They’re also doing things like cleaning the buses and disinfecting them; they’re providing more spaces and time for workers to wash their hands when they’re in the fields.

One of the companies we work with has also been trying to find other ways to support the community, and we collaborated with them in bringing hand washing stations to some of the parking lots where people are picked up, so workers can wash their hands before and after getting on the bus. The CIW women’s group is sewing masks for the farmworker community, so that people have something to cover their faces when they go on the buses.

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We’ve worked very hard to make Immokalee a place where people’s rights are respected and they’re looked at as human beings. Right now, in light of coronavirus, we’ve been asking the governor of Florida, Ron DeSantis, to take that into consideration and to provide the community here with what they need as they continue to do the important work that the rest of the country needs.

“It’s important for us to understand how we’re all connected in this”

There are a couple things we’re asking for. One is a field hospital with medical staff that can take care of people, but in a way that’s accessible to the community—not somewhere you have to provide a lot of information that doesn’t really have to do with your care. Most people don’t have their own transportation, so maybe [the hospital] is in a place you can get to with a bike. [We want] materials for personal protection—masks, hand sanitizer—made available to the community. Alternate living spaces, like FEMA trailers, could isolate people who test positive.

We know it’s difficult all over, but people who are in these especially vulnerable conditions and continuing to go to work [should] be protected and have free and accessible testing so that workers who have the virus aren’t spreading it to others. And lastly, public funding [would] help people pay their rent and take care of other necessities. Many in the farmworker community have been left out of the benefits that are going to other workers in the U.S.—receiving stimulus [checks] or being able to apply for unemployment.

It’s important to protect the health and well-being of the people in our community, but it also goes toward protecting the health and well-being of people outside of Immokalee. The workers here don’t just stay in Immokalee; they go and work in other communities. And even beyond that: Everyone is going to the supermarket and trying to buy healthy food to take care of themselves while they’re sheltering at home. That food is brought to you by agricultural workers. If we begin to get sick and have this disease propagate as it has in other communities, there won’t be anyone to pick those fruits and vegetables.

So it’s important for us to understand how we’re all connected. [We’re] not just looking at the government or the industry, but also to consumers, to ask them to speak up and sign the petition that we’re circulating to ask for these protections for farmworkers. In the end, these are protections for all of us.

“Farmworkers are always the ones on the front lines.”

What I understand is that there have been four positive cases in Immokalee. We don’t know any other information about that—who or where. But it’s especially concerning because we know how our community is set up. We say Immokalee is kind of like dry kindling in a forest fire. Once there’s a little spark, it’s going to ignite and burn very rapidly. We know it’s here, and we assume there are other people who are probably infected and don’t even know. So we’re hoping to do everything we can to prevent that forest fire from burning.

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We really are looking to collaborate with the government on this. We’re doing all we can, in our hands, to support and protect the community. Farmworkers are always the ones on the front lines. They’re the ones who are supporting the economy of the U.S. and making sure there’s food on the table for everyone. But so often—as we’ve seen happen with hurricanes and the wildfires in California—we’re the last ones to receive any protections.

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About the author

Pavithra Mohan is a staff writer for Fast Company.

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