Despite the risk of COVID-19 infection, hundreds of thousands put on sandals, put on bathing suits, applied sunscreen and hit the beaches to celebrate Labor Day, the long holiday that marks the end of the summer. In agricultural fields, some 3 million agricultural workers spend these days very differently.
In California, where temperatures have exceeded 100 degrees Fahrenheit in recent weeks, entire families of farm workers continue their tireless work in the blazing sun to harvest the fresh fruits and vegetables that we have on our table. Worse still, America’s top food-producing state is being ravaged by devastating wildfires that have engulfed more than 2 million acres.
“Agricultural workers continue to work without having the necessary equipment to protect themselves,” says Teresa Romero, the leader of the Union of Campesinos or United Farm Workers. “The masks that we have been distributing are to protect against COVID-19, but not from the poor quality that exists in the air from the fires.”
Although specific guidelines have been issued to protect agricultural workers, they are not being fully implemented in all agricultural fields. The peasants have a phrase that sums up their working conditions before and during the pandemic: “The laws on the books … are not the laws in the fields.”
The reality is that, in the wake of the pandemic, the federal government for the first time recognizes agricultural workers as essential workers, but at the same time has excluded those who are undocumented from receiving any federal benefits. This has been the case with the financial rescue packages approved by the federal Congress. Even those workers who are citizens or legal residents, whose spouse is undocumented, or those undocumented with US children have been excluded.
“It was a great injustice,” says Daniel Garza, president of The Libre Initiative and a descendant of a family of agricultural workers, referring to US citizens who did not receive the federal support check simply because their partner did not have legal status in the States United.
“When a government imposes rules, when it makes restrictions on employment, on work, on opportunities, it must compensate the person who is affected, including the people of the undocumented,” Daniel said in the new discussion program Mano a Mano de La Red Hispana.
The Federal Congress has the responsibility to redress that injustice immediately. The Senate returned to session this week after its summer recess. On the table is the version of the rescue bill which is approved in the House of Representatives and includes support for those anonymous heroes of the pandemic. Those essential workers are putting in all their effort and risking their health. The least they deserve is an elementary act of justice and reciprocity.