Farmworkers and their advocates during a press call Thursday continued to shine a light on the ongoing need to pass both workplace protections and a pathway to citizenship for undocumented workers, citing a historic—and deadly—heat wave. Daily Kos’ Laura Clawson recently wrote that farmworkers who have been “picking cherries and blueberries in temperatures over 100 degrees included children as young as 12 and adults in their 70s, with some employers not even supplying water, let alone shade.”
But as Clawson also noted, “some coverage of agriculture in the heat wave talked entirely about the danger to crops and never even mentioned workers.” Farmworkers said during the press call this week they’re always there, whether mentioned or not. “At no point do we stop working,” said Alejandra, a farmworker in Texas, where the heat there is yet again straining the state’s energy grid. “Under the hot sun, in the rain. We don’t have another option but to work to survive. And the bosses keep us working so the harvest isn’t lost.”
”Amidst record-breaking temperatures, the importance of access to fresh water, shade, training and breaks become a matter of life and death,” the We Are Home campaign said in a statement received by Daily Kos. “Unfortunately, no federal heat standards exist, leaving thousands of farm workers vulnerable to heat illness and death.” While Democratic lawmakers have introduced a national heat regulation bill to protect farmworkers, union leaders from the press call have also been calling on state leadership to implement emergency measures for farmworkers and other outdoor laborers.
“Last week, amidst record heat across the Pacific Northwest, the UFW and UFW Foundation began organizing the distribution of drinks and information on avoiding heat stroke to farm workers in the Yakima Valley,” Teresa Romero, We Are Home campaign co-chair and United Farm Workers president said during the call. “But that is not enough. Congress must pass federal heat standards as well as a path to citizenship.”
Per a recent text message survey of farmworkers by the UFW Foundation, more than 40% of respondents said they’d experienced a heat-related symptom while working. 18% said they were given only one break, while 5% said they were given no breaks at all. And for too many, the ability to report these workplace abuses is directly hindered by immigration status. “Many farm workers are undocumented immigrants are reluctant to come forward to report violations for fear of deportation and family separation and/or loss of their job,” UFW Foundation said.
“I want my people to feel free to demand their rights,” said Leticia, a farmworker in Washington state. The state’s Department of Health said Thursday that nearly 80 people there have died as a result of the heat wave. “To speak up when they or someone is being robbed of them. I fear not making it home to my husband and children. The lack of status can be crippling, but I have faith that the Congress will do the right thing.”
Farmworkers who were among the essential workers recently honored at the White House as part of its July 4th celebration also used the event to push for legalization. Among them are laborers who have picked and packed tomatoes, jalapeños, bell peppers, poblano peppers, eggplants, strawberries, onions, cucumber,s and tobacco.
“Farm worker legalization means ending the fear that farm worker communities face on a daily basis,” said Jacqueline, a farmworker from Georgia who traveled to the White House. “The same fear I’m holding. The fear of not being able to see some people, or family, just for trying to earn money to have food on the table like all other households. The very food that farm worker communities pick while undergoing hazardous conditions. Enduring the unbearable heat, the cold, body aches, and the COVID pandemic among other things. This fear haunts us and leaves many with an inability to do things or receive the care we need, which is something many take for granted.”
Bruce Goldstein, president of Farmworker Justice, said during the press call that farmworkers “deserve not only our thanks and respect, but they deserve immigration reform that grants them immigration status and a path to citizenship.” Alejandra urged the public to remember the humanity of farmworkers. “We are also human,” she continued. “If the worker doesn’t work in the fields, there is no produce in the stores. Give us papers so we don’t have to be afraid, so we don’t have to hide.”