The US government is helping farm bosses to cut their workers’ wages in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic.
The 205,000 farm workers across the US, mostly migrants, are officially considered “essential workers”. But the Trump administration is giving bosses the green light to slash their pay.
The US Department of Agriculture last week said it would stop conducting the Farm Labor Survey, which is traditionally used to set wages. It claims this is because it can collect the data in different ways.
But by not conducting this survey, many fear bosses will find it easier to pay their workers much less. And US farm workers already earn a paltry 13 dollars an hour on average.
Trump’s administration has slashed much immigration into the US – but it has made sure migrant farm workers can still enter the country.
Those with a H-2A visa—a temporary agricultural work visa—have been encouraged to the US to carry out jobs such as fruit picking. Some 10 percent of the farm labour force is made up of people on H-2A visas, overwhelmingly from Mexico.
In 2016, 134,368 people with H-2A visas entered the US. This rose to 204,801 in 2019.
Bosses ruthlessly exploit migrant workers, routinely cheating them out of their wages. Some workers say bosses have trapped them at their place of work.
The Southern Poverty Law Centre filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of migrant workers, working for Lowry Farms contractors in Arkansas earlier this year. Bosses had withheld wages and paid workers less than the minimum wage.
“We were treated like slaves, that’s what made me feel the worst,” said one worker. “I felt pressured by the overall treatment we were receiving and the amount of work that was demanded of us.”
During the pandemic, conditions for some have got worse.
When wildfires hit California they clogged the air with toxic fumes. The California Department of Food and Agriculture said it shipped close to 3.27 million respirator masks to agriculture commissioners in 35 counties.
All workers who work outside in the state are required to wear a mask when air quality is bad. But in a poll of farm workers, hundreds reported that they didn’t receive any masks.
Farm worker Carina said there was a box of masks at her workplace – but her supervisor said they could only be used if an inspector visited.
“It’s just hard,” she told The Bee newspaper in August. “It’s like they don’t think we are human.”
Covid-19 has spread unchecked through farms and food processing plants, with many workers reporting that they haven’t received personal protective equipment (PPE).
And social distancing is often difficult to maintain.
Monica Ramirez is the president and founder of the non-profit Justice for Migrant Women group. “Farmworkers in our nation have been denied the basic rights and protections that other workers have been afforded for more than 80 years,” she said.
“During this time, when farmworkers have been deemed essential workers, they've not been extended essential rights and benefits.”
In June a group of 50 workers went on strike in Wasco, California, after dozens of workers tested positive for Covid-19. Workers had learnt about the cases two weeks after their colleagues began to get sick.
And in the Yakima Valley in Washington, hundreds of fruit pickers took part in wildcat strikes against seven fruit companies in May.
The treatment of mostly migrant agricultural workers exposes a racist immigration system that uses migrants to make profits for the bosses. But workers are showing that resistance is possible.