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Farmworkers face ‘a myriad of indignities’ during pandemic. Advocates call for more protections

Washington farmworker on strike
Courtesy of C2C and Brenda Bentley
Washington farmworker on strike

Washington farmworkers have been hit hard by Covid-19. The Yakima Valley is one hot spot. But agricultural workers across the state are facing extra risks, even as thousands of guest workers arrive for the summer harvest.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Back in May, Washington state put some new emergency rules in place to protect workers, like requiring employers to provide face coverings, and limiting living quarters for guest workers to 15 people. But advocate Rosalinda Guillen says the most urgent recommendations from advocates were ignored.

It's all about the apples, and keeping the harvest moving forward. I seriously think that there's more concern about getting the apples and the cherries and all the other tree fruit harvested than there is about keeping farmworkers alive.

Guillen is Executive Director of Community to Community Development, a nonprofit based in Bellingham. She says the most contentious disagreement with state officials was over the use of bunk beds in farmworker housing.

The whole point of the industry, which is our complaint for years, is that they crowd workers, because it costs less to house more workers in less space. They also eat in communal kitchens, and communal dining rooms. They have communal restrooms, showers.

They also transport them to and from work in buses and vans, where they're crowded into the spaces. This is the normal working conditions and living conditions when they get here from the United States. And it became really clear from experts that bunk beds were dangerous in this pandemic.

And so when you pointed that out to them, what did they tell you?

They brought up the cost of what it would mean to remove the bunk beds, to space them out wider. This is all we heard. The argument was the cost, the cost to the industry.

I would just like to quote one of the industry leaders. Their complaint was that they would not be able to bring as many guest workers into Washington state this year as were needed, and as were brought in last year. And that if we insisted on not using bunk beds, we might as well take a meat cleaver to the agricultural industry and destroy it.

What alternative would you tell them? What should they be considering?

Bringing in less guest workers. They should be considering what every other business in the state of Washington is considering, that we're in the middle of a pandemic, in a very dangerous crisis, where people are being affected. All other industries and all other businesses are cutting back or slowing down, are looking at protecting workers, and having to implement different production standards, slower production standards, some businesses even closing down.

What we said is that the agricultural industry needs to consider the moment, and understand that farmworkers lives were at stake. And, in order to do that, there were certain sacrifices that needed to make to be made, like possibly bringing in less H-2A workers or guest workers, incentivizing local farm workers in Washington state to recruit more of the local farmworkers, instead of bringing in workers from Mexico, and to look at this year as a crisis period, where we needed to take care of each other, take care of the workers, but also look to see how we could help the industry, but modify the current structure and the current process in order to protect farmworkers lives.

In the end, this was all ignored. There are as many H-2A guest workers in Washington state today as there were on the same day last year. There were no cutbacks made.

Summer harvest is happening right now. I want to know what your concerns are for the workers, both the folks who live and work here year-round, as well as the thousands of guest workers who have just arrived.

The concern we have right now is testing. It's actually understanding the numbers of workers in our community, in farmworker families, how many are actually being sickened? How many of them are actually positive with the virus? How is that testing being done? We have a huge concern about the way the testing is being done both in Whatcom and Skagit County right now. And I think it's the same way in other counties across the state.

Is there a conversation with somebody that stands out for you that brings home what the challenge is right now for people?

It's hard to say just one. I would just like to name Armida. She's in the Yakima Valley. She's one of the packing shed workers that went out on strike. When she talks to me about her life, and her children, and her job in the packing shed, and how hard they work, and when they walked out how frustrated they were simply because they were asking for masks.

When she didn't have the money to buy the masks, they were selling them the masks. The frustration and anger that they felt, when they asked their supervisor ‘Why are you wearing a mask that says N95, and you give us these other ones that look, clearly, cheaper and less protective? This virus doesn't distinguish between you and me, why do you get a better mask and we don't?’

There's just a myriad of indignities that the workers suffered at those packing sheds that we're hearing from other workers in other areas where the same thing is happening over and over and over again. It is about the disease. It is about workers feeling that finally it is made really clear that their lives don't matter, that they are sacrificing the farm workers lives in order to keep the production lines going.

This is why we fight so hard to try to make things right. This is why we will hold the state agencies in the governor accountable, for overlooking us, for thinking that it's okay to take the brown farm workers and sacrifice their lives in order for the agricultural industry to keep their economic numbers up like they always have.

We reached out to the State Department of Health for this story. A spokesperson pointed to the emergency rules on worker housing, which say that bunk beds may only be used in group shelters with no more than 15 people, and that the rules passed in May will help increase worker safety and reduce the spread of coronavirus.

Listen to the interview by clicking the play button above.

Copyright 2020 KUOW