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India Currents gave me a voice in days I was very lost. Having my articles selected for publishing was very validating – Shailaja Dixit, Executive Director, Narika, Fremont
“There were no vaccination opportunities provided in our packed day and then there were the rumors of deportation, government harassment and infertility resulting from a visit to the vaccination clinic or hospital,” said an agricultural worker from Kern County, who participated in a briefing hosted by Ethnic Media Service (Oct 20) on the pandemic’s risk to farmworkers.
Kern County is one of America’s largest table food producers. Three of the state’s top seven agricultural exports are produced here. It is also among counties that lead in death by Covid.
Of the counties registering the highest number of dead, eight were in the Central Valley. Agricultural workers accounted for nearly one fourth of the state’s 45,000 pandemic related deaths.
The number of farmworkers who died picking blueberries, cherries and cantaloupes is not really known. In the resulting undercount of deaths by Covid, farm workers accounted for the second highest number of essential workers to die, second only to warehouse workers.
Agricultural workers have the lowest vaccination rates among essential workers. Only fifty percent of agricultural workers were vaccinated nationally when eighty four percent of other essential workers got vaccinated, said the panelist at the Ethnic Media briefing.
“The biggest determinant of how Kern county’s Punjabi agricultural worker fared on Covid, at the macro level, depended on what the employer did. The employer’s action, on providing Covid protection, was tied to labor shortages rather than welfare of their workers. The larger plants like Grimmway and Bolthouse Farms mandated their workers be vaccinated. In those cases there is a higher vaccination rate. At the smaller food processing, agricultural production agencies it was a very different story,” said Deep Singh, the executive director of the Jakara Movement, a volunteer training organization and a hub for Sikh Californian youth, at the EMS briefing.
A story reported by KQED about COVID outbreaks among farmworkers, featured Jatinderpal Singh, (71) who worked with his cousin Baljnder at Foster Farms’ Cherry plant in Fresno. They both got Covid.
Baljinder Dhillon, 65, a mechanic at the plant, died. After his cousin brother’s death Jatinderpal quit. He just could not bring himself to go to work. He felt as if he had lost his support system.
“My legs still shake,” Jatinderpal Singh told KQED. “I still feel it, even today. My legs buckle when I think about him.”
The Punjabi community dates back to 100 years, said Deep Singh. In the 50s and 60s larger farming companies drew in Punjabi workers. Fast changing situations of the 90s and 2000 saw farm worker jobs, which were normal entry point jobs, lose favor with the younger Punjabi workers They entered transportation, retail, and restaurant work. Farm work was left to the elderly, young women, and the undocumented, said Deep Singh.
During COVID there was migration from the Bay area where restaurants closed for business. This new group of agricultural workers rented rooms in mobile homes. Wage theft and exploitation is rife.
These communities are isolated, lack transportation, have little access to right information and health facilities. Language barriers, unfamiliar medical systems, no health insurance, and financial challenges are made worse by a lack of workers’ rights.
A recent study of California’s women farm workers revealed that very few migrants of indigenous origin are covered by medical insurance; six of every 10 indigenous migrant women have not visited a doctor in the U.S.
The sick, fearing deportation or government retribution, are more likely to be willing to cross national borders than visit California clinics and hospitals.
Fifty seven percent of the workers are not citizens. They earn a median annual salary of $14,000. Thirty four percent live below the poverty line. One out of five live in a multiple family household. And this data is for the relatively privileged. It does not include those who live in labor camps.
The workers have no time, no transportation and fear giving personal information to the government.
“Reduction in labor availability from COVID-19 is estimated to reduce U.S. agricultural output by about $309 million,” says Ranveer Chandra in his study, Farmer and farm worker illnesses and deaths from COVID-19 and impacts on agricultural output.
Besides “ it makes economic sense.”
Like the grapes they pack, the California farm worker depends on delicate handling by their employer and the government.
Ritu Marwah was a 2020 California reporting and engagement fellow at USC Annenberg’s Center for Health Journalism.