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Farmers Accused of Indifference to COVID-19 Among Migrant Workers

10/01/2020

Investigative journalists have reviewed county data on prevalence rates of COVID-19 among migrant workers in Northwest States and Florida.  The Columbia University, Brown Institute for Media Innovation undertook interviews with county officials and agricultural workers in ten states during the 2020 harvest season for fruit in the northwest and produce in Florida.

 

The investigation disclosed that farm and food-plant workers continued in their labor despite the risk of exposure to COVID-19 as they were designated "essential" in terms of the Presidential Executive Order on April 28th.  In addition, migrant farm workers on H-2A visa programs are in reliant on daily labor for survival and for remittances to their families in their home countries. 

 

Problems that were uncovered in the investigation included:-

  • Failure to maintain social distancing when transporting workers from temporarily accommodation to fields
  • Failure to provide even the most basic PPE
  • Failure to undertake testing followed by isolation of infected individuals
  • Allowing workers to live in accommodation with primitive hygiene facilities conducive to infection
  • Deliberate obstruction of county and state officials investigating outbreaks of COVID-19
  • Reluctance to cooperate with county officials and non-profit healthcare organizations to provide counseling on protection against COVID-19
  • Prompt dismissal of workers complaining of COVID-like symptoms or requesting protective measures

 

Epidemiologic studies confirm that the prevalence rate of COVID-19 among migrant farm works far exceeded the level in the general population in counties with intensive agriculture that employed a large number of workers for seasonal cultivation or harvesting.  Investigations demonstrated instances of collusion between county and state officials and large employers with respect to testing workers and reporting results. State agencies in California distributed masks to H-2A visa workers picking strawberries and other crops.

 

COVID-19 will be a fact of life for the foreseeable future in cultivation of fruit and produce, even with deployment of an effective vaccine in the U.S. Since H-2A workers come from nations where vaccination programs will not be carried out, it will be necessary to vaccinate and test workers before entry to the U.S. 

 

Irrespective of protective modalities, no industry, irrespective of Presidential executive orders can ignore the realities of disease and to subject H-2A workers to exposure resulting in illness and in some cases, death.  Individual family-owned and corporate farms supply packers with brand name products that are sold in supermarkets.  These chains are vulnerable to adverse publicity in the court of public opinion and will be implicated in class action litigation. Ultimately producers will be subject to Federal or state mandates on protection from COVID-19 and other communicable diseases. It would be preferable to adopt a more realistic and proactive approach to preventing COVID-19 among migrant workers in 2021.