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Let’s Celebrate And Honor The Essential Immigrant Workers Who Keep Us Fed All Year Round

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Ahead of Labor Day, United Farm Workers (UFW) and allies are set to form a mile-long, “human billboard” line in support of mushroom workers in Washington state. While a majority of workers at the Sunnyside-based Windmill Farms voted to unionize, the owners have refused to recognize the union – or even just meet with workers.

“Mushroom workers have toiled under horrendous working conditions, enduring unsafe treatment, oppressive quotas and retaliation,” UFW said. The union notes that Ostrom Mushroom Farm – which sold its Sunnyside location to Windmill Farms – recently settled with the state’s attorney general for $3.4 million “over gender discrimination after the company fired 79% of its mostly female workforce.”

What a way to treat the essential workers – many foreign-born and many lacking legal immigration status – that quite literally keep the agricultural industry alive and running. Ruby is one of these workers, sharing a day in her life in a TikTok from UFW Foundation last year.


thinking about farm workers who feed America this #4thofjuly #BBQ #dayinmylife #vlog #summer

♬ Stories 2 – Danilo Stankovic

“This is my outfit for the day,” the Georgia farmworker began, showing a bandana, a mask that covers nearly her entire head, and other pieces of clothing. That might seem a bit heavy for working outdoors, but Ruby says it’s necessary to protect her from the sun as she harvests eggplants and habaneros. Like we’ve previously noted, the extreme heat that’s been hitting parts of the nation can be a matter of life or death for outdoor workers. Workers and advocates have been calling on the federal government to urgently implement federal heat protections.

“It’s hot outside, but I wear layers to prevent sunburns and a scarf to prevent sweat from dripping into my eyes,” Ruby continued. She notes she starts work so early that it’s still dark out when she leaves to begin her 12 hour shift. She says she frequently has pain in her back, feet, and fingers from the repetitive movements. “I get really tired carrying buckets back and forth to and from the table where I package produce.”

Farm work is skilled work, as Ruby and countless essential farm workers have shown. “Asparagus requires delicate handling and a grueling posture. Harvesters have a high rate of repetitive strain injuries,” UFW has said. Other items, like beets, require workers to be on their knees for hours at a time. In another video, a farmworker named Guillermo harvests leeks. “Workers spend 8 hrs/day, 6 days/week kneeling on the ground, up down rows to harvesting,” UFW said. “It’s a labor intensive crop that requires skilled manual work.” 

“Fan-favorite Charlie harvests turnips,” UFW shared in one 2020 video. “He’s paid piece rate — earns $1.50 every two buckets. He is the fastest in his crew averaging 24-26 buckets per hr. Rushing is dangerous, you could easily lose a finger.” Because many farmworkers are paid piecemeal, they may hesitate to take breaks to get important shade, hydration, and rest. It’s a major reason why the call for the federal government to implement federal heat protections includes a demand for paid rest breaks. 

The movement for protection has won the support of more than 110 federal lawmakers, who have urged the Biden administration “to create new federal rules to protect workers from heat-related injuries on the job,” The Daily Beast recently reported

These essential workers also include meat and poultry processing workers, who were particularly affected by the novel coronavirus pandemic. “38 percent of the country’s meat processing workers are foreign-born, compared to just 17 percent of all workers, according to the Economic Policy Institute,” WFYI-radio reported in 2021. Iowan Amner Martinez said that most of his family members have worked at Tyson Food plants since arriving from Guatemala decades ago. It can be dangerous work, with that danger only increasing amid the pandemic, he told the outlet.

“And I also know the opportunity that has provided my entire family to just move out of poverty, really,” he continued. Iowa and its economy have hugely benefited from these workers, studies have shown.

But despite the fact that many of these workers keep us all fed year-round, in rain and extreme heat, many remain highly vulnerable to workplace injuries and abuses due to a lack of full workplace rights. For undocumented workers, deportation hangs over their heads like a constant dark cloud due to a lack of federal action on immigration reform. It’s estimated that at least half of the nation’s farmworkers lack legal immigration status. 

“Immigrants contribute enormously to our communities and U.S. economy,” Mary Kay Henry, President of SEIU, said during a press call this week. She noted that immigrant members have been critical to the strength of unions. These workers deserve our thanks and support all year long. But just as importantly, they deserve their full workplace rights and protections.