Americans all across the nation will be celebrating our country’s fight for independence this July 4 by attending parades, watching fireworks, and gathering around picnic tables to enjoy delicious summer food, like watermelon, apple pie and corn. It should also be a time for remembering the contributions made by farmworkers, many of whom are not citizens yet or lack a way to ever be citizens because they are undocumented. The hard work of these essential workers will help make our very American celebrations and gatherings possible, because chances are the meals many of us will be enjoying will have passed through their hands first.
There’s Ruby, a Georgia farmworker who in a 2022 TikTok from UFW Foundation shared a day in her life and the work that goes into getting food from the fields to our tables.
“This is my outfit for the day,” she begins, 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. “It’s hot outside, but I wear layers to prevent sunburns and a scarf to prevent sweat from dripping into my eyes.” She notes she starts work so early that it’s still dark out when she leaves to begin her 12 hour shift.
“I pick and pack produce,” Ruby continues. “Today I am harvesting eggplants and habañeros. I get really tired carrying buckets back and forth to and from the table where I package produce.” She says she frequently has pain in her back, feet, and fingers from the repetitive movements. In the video, Ruby lays a red cloth onto a table to prepare a surface to package dozens of freshly picked eggplants.
Farmworkers (along with other outdoor workers) can face serious – and even deadly – risks throughout their work. “Farmworkers, who are a majority migrant and Spanish-speaking workforce, die of heat-related causes at a rate of 20 times more than other professions,” Civil Eats reported amid a scorching heatwave that hit the west last year. UFW, the famous union of Caesar Chavez, shared an image of Lourdes, a farmworker in Fresno who spent her July 4th weekend last year picking nectarines in 90 degree heat. Heatwaves make breaks for shade and water crucial, but only a handful of states have adopted such standards. There is no federal heat standard at this time:
Lourdes is a farm worker from Fresno CA. While many families celebrated the 4th of July holiday, Lourdes spent the day working. She picked nectarines for minimum wage in 90° heat. #WeFeedYou pic.twitter.com/1gq0lFwsVL
— United Farm Workers (@UFWupdates) July 6, 2022
Ruby knows the value of her work. “In heatwaves and pandemics, farmworkers are always here making sure Americans are fed,” she continued in UFW’s video. “We should not live in fear of deportation.” It’s a message that lawmakers like California Republican David Valadao should heed. While he’s called agriculture “the backbone of the Central Valley’s economy,” his most recent immigration vote this Congress was in support of the anti-immigrant H.R. 2 bill, also known as the Child Deportation Act.
It’s estimated that at least half of the nation’s roughly 2.4 million farmworkers lack legal immigration status. During a 2021 Senate hearing on the vital role of immigrant farmworkers, California Sen. Alex Padilla said as many as 75% of the farmworkers in the state may lack status.
In Georgia, where Ruby lives and works, we’ve seen the devastating effects of anti-immigrant legislation. ”Georgia Farmers Say Immigration Law Keeps Workers Away,” read one 2011 headline after the state legislature passed a a state anti-immigrant law. That should have served as a warning to Florida, which passed its own anti-immigrant law recently. It has, as predicted, resulted in frightened immigrant workers fleeing the state. Florida workers have continued steady protests against S.B. 1718, which is set to go into effect July 1:
Huge march happening right now in Fort Myers against DeSantis’ anti-immigrant law. Si se puede. pic.twitter.com/CkjJX8MFZX
— Thomas Kennedy (@tomaskenn) June 28, 2023
Ruby, Lourdes, and other farmworkers play major roles in all holidays where large meals are common, including Thanksgiving and Christmas. In a viral Twitter thread back in 2020, UFW showed some of the hard work that goes into Thanksgiving meals. Some of the featured foods – like beets, asparagus, and brussels sprouts – are all dishes that could also be a part of our 4th of July celebrations. While some foods, like sweet potatoes, can be harvested by machines, they still must be washed by workers. Other foods demand skilled hand work, UFW said.
“Asparagus requires delicate handling and a grueling posture. Harvesters have a high rate of repetitive strain injuries,” the organization said. Other items, like beets, require workers to be on knees for hours at a time. These essential workers also include meat and poultry processing workers, who were particularly affected by the 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 reported in 2021.
Asparagus requires delicate handling and a grueling posture. Harvesters have a high rate of repetitive strain injuries. This video is of an asparagus worker from Gonzalez, CA. #WeFeedYou pic.twitter.com/W37NlfqRvV
— United Farm Workers (@UFWupdates) November 22, 2022
Veggies make great sides on the #Thanksgiving table.
— United Farm Workers (@UFWupdates) November 22, 2022
During a press call covered by Daily Kos last year, Farmworker Justice President Bruce Goldstein said 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, a farmworker from Texas, lifted up the humanity of farmworkers. Outdoor workers there are also facing a major heatwave. “We are also human,” she said. “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.”
Of course, recognizing the hard work and contributions of immigrant farmworkers and other essential workers shouldn’t be only on July 4, Thanksgiving or Christmas. They put food on our tables every day, and were there for us during the hard days of the pandemic. They deserve far more than our thanks. They deserve dignity, full workplace rights, and the chance to live their lives without fear.