Coronavirus protections lacking for Mexican farmworkers feeding the U.S.

by Christine Murray | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 2 April 2020 16:33 GMT

ARCHIVE PHOTO: Mexican migrant farmworkers eat during a break while harvesting romaine lettuce in King City, California, U.S., April 17, 2017. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

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Farmworkers both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border lack protective gear and run a major risk of illness, advocates said

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By Christine Murray

MEXICO CITY, April 2 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Mexican farmworkers on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border are working in unsanitary conditions despite the rapid rise in coronavirus cases, according to laborers, advocates and academics who said basic health precautions were widely lacking.

Thousands of Mexicans get temporary H-2A agriculture worker visas each month and migrate to the United States, which now has more than 214,000 cases of COVID-19, the world's highest figure, and at least 4,800 deaths, according to a Reuters tally.

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The U.S. State Department last week waived in-person interview requirements for many H-2A applicants - 90% of whom are Mexican - with officials calling the program a "national security priority" and vital to the nation's food supply chain.

Yet farmworkers in both the United States and Mexico are going without protective gear and struggle to maintain hygiene or adhere to social distancing, laborers and campaigners said.

"They don't give us gloves or masks ... we eat at the same table, we wash in the same bathroom," said a Mexican worker on a farm in Florida, who declined to be named for fear of reprisals.

Water often ran out in portable toilets - leaving laborers unable to wash their hands - and there was no antibacterial gel, said the worker, who lives in a small house with eight others.

"There's no space, we're in contact all the time," the 22-year-old told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.

H-2A workers - almost 205,000 were issued visas in the last fiscal year - and the countless American farm laborers who travel long distances for jobs now pose "major risks of illness and death", according to the non-profit Farmworker Justice.

"Failure to take proactive steps now could be catastrophic," the D.C.-based organization wrote in a letter to the U.S. Secretaries of Labor, State and Homeland Security last month.

The U.S. Department of Labor and Mexico's Labor Ministry did not respond to requests for comment.

"INSUFFICIENT MEASURES"

Millions of laborers within Mexico cut sugar cane, pick berries and do other farm jobs every year, with a large proportion migrating between states in search of work.

Yet many workers have not been given any information about the coronavirus outbreak, let alone health checks, said the nonprofit National Network of Agricultural Workers.

In northern states Sonora and Sinaloa, which export a large amount of produce to the United States, academics listed virus-related concerns over accommodation, transport and job security.

"I think its worrying and difficult for something to be done, because its an old, structural problem about the conditions they live in," said Celso Ortiz, a Sinaloa-based researcher at the Autonomous Indigenous University of Mexico.

"The minimum would be giving them information so they can take some measures," he said.

Mexico has registered 1,378 coronavirus cases and 37 deaths.

In Sonora, some farms were carrying out temperature checks and even maintaining social distancing, only to pack workers into crowded buses at the end of the day, according to Jose Eduardo Calvario, a sociologist from the College of Sonora.

"They are taking measures, but they're insufficient."

Broad legal protections that could kick in for workers laid off due to the outbreak in Mexico - such as one mandatory month of minimum wage - are unlikely to apply to farmworkers who do not tend to have written contracts, Calvario added.

In both countries, there was a serious lack of oversight of conditions on farms, workers and migrant rights activists said.

Evy Pena, communications director at the Mexico-based Center for Migrant Rights, said that even if workplaces complied with labor laws, they were not strong enough to protect laborers during the outbreak.

"There is so much attention on the food supply chain right now, but there is no talk of strengthening protections for the workers that will be sustaining that industry," Pena added.

RELATED LINKS:

Germany to relax coronavirus border controls for farm workers 

Coronavirus lockdown leaves Italian farmers struggling to plant for spring 

EU urges countries to open borders to seasonal farm workers 

(Reporting by Christine Murray, Editing by Kieran Guilbert. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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