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As America Recognizes Essential Contributions of Immigrant Farmworkers, Trump Administration Seeks to Slash Their Wages

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More and more observers are recognizing the essential role that farmworkers play in keeping food on America’s tables and the essential role that immigrants play in the farmworker workforce and agricultural industry. Yet as this recognition grows, the Trump administration is disconcertingly seeking to slash wages for farmworkers and keep them out of the ongoing effort to stimulate and stabilize the economy and protect the broader public’s health.

For CNN, Catherine Shoichet writes, “The farmworkers putting food on America’s tables are facing their own coronavirus crisis,” noting the essential contributions of immigrant farmworkers:

More than a million farmworkers aren’t hunkered down at home as the coronavirus pandemic paralyzes much of the country. Their labor — in fields, orchards and packing plants — is keeping food on America’s tables. But workers and groups who represent them are sounding an alarm. Their warning: As the virus spreads, many farmworkers are living and working in conditions that put their health particularly at risk. And if outbreaks hit farmworker communities hard, they say, that could put the nation’s food supply at risk, too.

…Carmen, a 44-year-old worker at a strawberry farm in Oxnard, California, says she’s been trying to remind people about social distancing guidelines, but fellow workers aren’t heeding her warnings and the company isn’t forcing anyone to stay six feet apart … ‘We are supposedly working so other people can be at home, so they can have food,’ she says. ‘They called us essential workers, but we don’t have any rights.’

…At least half of farmworkers are undocumented immigrants, according to government estimates. Many don’t have health insurance or receive sick leave.

…Maria [a worker at a Yakima Valley, Washington fruit orchard] is hoping a longer-term solution will emerge from this crisis, a way for undocumented farmworkers to come out of the shadows. Being officially deemed ‘essential workers’ was a small step in the right direction, she says. But officials are sending mixed messages. ‘It’s contradictory. It’s an achievement that they’re calling us this,’  she says. ‘But without any benefits, it’s like saying, ‘you are good, but you are not important.’

Meanwhile, as Franco Ordonez covers for NPR, the Trump administration is seeking to “Lower Farmworker Pay To Help Agriculture Industry:

New White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows is working with Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue to see how to reduce wage rates for foreign guest workers on American farms, in order to help U.S. farmers struggling during the coronavirus, according to U.S. officials and sources familiar with the plans.

…Erik Nicholson, national vice president for the United Farm Workers, says people who have worked in agriculture for decades are concerned they are going to lose their jobs. And he said vulnerable guest workers are not being provided proper hand-washing facilities and still being forced to live in cramped housing.

“So in the middle of a pandemic, rather than trying to figure out the cheap way to do things, we need to make sure we live up to the expectations society has of us as an industry to keep the food flowing,” Nicholson said.

According to Pili Tobar, Deputy Director of America’s Voice:

The contrast could not be more clear – while immigrant farmworkers are proving how important they are and all they do for all of us, the Trump Administration is seeking to cut their wages and keep them excluded from efforts to protect the public’s health and stabilize the economy. We need to honor the sacrifices immigrants are making in the middle of this crisis to make sure that the food supply chain is not disrupted and everyone can continue to eat. Instead of jeopardizing their livelihoods and sabotaging their wellbeing in the middle of a global pandemic, Trump needs to act now to secure a living wage and safe working conditions for farmworkers. Bailing out big businesses is not the way to keep the country running if workers are dying on food production lines, in crowded vans headed to the fields, or in cramped living conditions. We all deserve an opportunity for health and nutrition during this crisis, and that includes giving farmworkers the protection and dignity they deserve as they heroically work to feed a nation in crisis.