Endangering Lives and Food Supply, Trump Labor Dept. Refuses Covid-19 Protections for Guest Farmworkers

Agricultural laborers pick lemons inside the orchards of Samag Services, Inc., in Mesa, California on March 27, 2020. (Photo: Brent Stirton/Getty Images)

Endangering Lives and Food Supply, Trump Labor Dept. Refuses Covid-19 Protections for Guest Farmworkers

"The Trump administration should be prioritizing the health and safety of the nation's farmworkers who are essential to our food security instead of spending time on reducing protections for farmworkers' wages and working conditions."

A national advocacy organization on Tuesday sharply criticized the Trump administration for rejecting calls to bolster safety protections for farmworkers risking their lives during the coronavirus pandemic to help keep people across the United States fed.

"The Trump administration made it easier for agricultural employers to recruit and employ temporary foreign workers during the pandemic, despite restricting other immigration processes, but refuses to require H-2A employers to protect farmworkers from Covid-19," declared Farmworker Justice president Bruce Goldstein, referencing a visa program that allows foreign nationals to temporarily work in U.S. agriculture.

"Farmworkers, especially foreign guestworkers, are at great risk due to crowded transportation vehicles, housing, and workplaces, as well as their low wages, lack of health insurance, geographic isolation, and language barriers," said Goldstein. "Despite numerous outbreaks of Covid-19 on farms, including some that use the H-2A program, the Trump administration callously refuses to meet its obligation to ensure the safety and health of farmworkers under the program."

Over three dozen groups led by Farmworker Justice sent a letter (pdf) on March 25 to the U.S. secretaries of labor, state, and homeland security, urging them, "as administration leaders responsible for administration of the H-2A temporary foreign agricultural worker program, to take immediate action to enforce all legal protections within their authority to safeguard farmworkers laboring under the H-2A program during this worldwide public health emergency."

Guided in part by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Covid-19 recommendations, the coalition's lengthy letter specifically requested labor requirements related to healthcare, housing, international recruitment, paid sick leave, safety information, testing, transportation, and workplace safety.

Whitney Ford, director of the Division of Immigration and Farm Labor at the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL), finally responded on July 6, Farmworker Justice revealed Tuesday. Summarizing the government response, the group's statement explained:

The DOL's letter discusses the various agencies' roles, the methods it has used to ease employers' access to guestworkers during the pandemic, and the non-mandatory "guidance" that has been issued on safety and health. It does not grant any of the requests made by the coalition and says that the DOL lacks authority to grant some of those requests.

In terms of future action, Ford wrote that the DOL, through its Employment and Training Administration, "plans to issue guidance to states and National Farmworker Jobs Program grantees on health and safety practices for [migrant and seasonal farmworkers, or MSFWs] and agricultural employees during the Covid-19 pandemic."

DOL's response did not satisfy Goldstein, who said that "the Department of Labor's refusal to require Covid-19 precautions under the H-2A agricultural guestworkers not only endangers the health and safety of hundreds of thousands of farmworkers and family members, but also endangers our nation's food supply."

The coronavirus crisis has devastated the world's economy and disrupted global food supply chains--and with millions of people who have lost their jobs in the United States, the nation's food banks have seen unprecedented demand. An analysis from May found that nearly one in five U.S. children were experiencing food insecurity. Despite the dire conditions across the country, Senate Republicans continue to block further federal relief, including food aid.

Migrant farmworkers in the U.S. have struggled to feed themselves and their families during the pandemic. Farmworker Justice's fight to secure greater protections for these workers--who have long been subjected to inadequate labor conditions--comes not only in the midst of the public health crisis but also as the Trump administration is working to overhaul H-2A program regulations with changes that would reduce workers' wages, U.S. workers' job preference, housing safety, and other protections.

"The Trump administration should be prioritizing the health and safety of the nation's farmworkers who are essential to our food security," said Goldstein, "instead of spending time on reducing protections for farmworkers' wages and working conditions."

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