Florida’s peak growing season is underway, and with it looms the peak of the novel coronavirus, COVID-19. The global pandemic threatens to decimate historically disenfranchised farmworker communities who continue to bear overcrowded living conditions, starvation wages and meager access to medical care while working to ensure that a seemingly endless supply of fresh produce continues to reach tables across the nation.
The necessity for preventative measures against the spread of COVID-19 among local farmworkers has been felt most acutely in Immokalee, a Collier county community home to multiple agricultural industries and heavily reliant on the labor of the 25,000 farmworkers that live and work there. In response to the crisis, farmworker advocacy organizations such as the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) and the Alliance for Fair Food (AFF) are petitioning Governor Ron DeSantis’ office for immediate legislative action to prevent the virus that has already claimed more than 10,000 lives in the U.S. from spreading, unbridled, within vulnerable farmworker communities in Immokalee and throughout the state of Florida.
Fifteen organizations and 17,000 individuals have signed on to the call for action on change.org, which has laid out a four-pointed list of requests to the governor’s office. The petition calls for local and federal authorities to ensure that a field hospital is constructed in Immokalee to provide quarantine space and treatment for farmworkers who have tested positive for COVID-19, provide personal protective equipment and hand sanitizer, implement free, accessible testing in Immokalee and to allocate public funds for economic relief for Florida farmworkers.
The open letter submitted to DeSantis’ office warns that if these measures are not rapidly implemented, “Immokalee will almost certainly become an epicenter of contagion, with dire consequences not only for the farmworker community in Immokalee and the broader Southwest Florida area, but also the Florida agricultural industry and the food supply of the entire United States.”
Approximately 150,000 to 200,000 migrant and seasonal farmworkers and their families travel and work in Florida annually and farmworker communities in Immokalee and across the state are uniquely vulnerable to a combination of critical factors that facilitate the spread of disease. Agriculture has been designated an essential industry amidst statewide stay-at-home orders, but the overwhelming majority of its workers suffer from overcrowded housing and transportation conditions and a near total lack of access to medical care and resources, issues that have plagued these communities for many years prior to the COVID-19 outbreak and threaten to crush the region’s already flimsy medical infrastructure.
Immokalee’s nearest hospital is 50 miles (a one hour drive) away in Naples, which presents one of the largest challenges in preventing the spread of the virus. Currently, there is still no access to COVID-19 testing in Immokalee. If a worker gets sick, the lack of testing would dangerously combine with the inaccessibility of treatment and quarantine spaces, threatening the entire community. Most farmworkers lack their own transportation to get to the hospital, and even if workers can get to the hospital and take time off work to seek care, treatment is not guaranteed. For many workers, missing a day of work or an entire paycheck due to sickness could mean the difference between being able to feed their families or going hungry.
Farmworkers have also historically had little or no access to other crucial public health services and preventative medical assistance and many lack health insurance or the financial resources to cover the costs of care. Undocumented workers and workers with mixed-status families may also be afraid to seek medical attention if they become ill for fear of immigration action against them and their loved ones.
Entangled with a grave lack of access to medical care are overcrowded housing and transportation conditions that many workers suffer in order to work in the fields. Lupe Gonzalo, a Community Organizer for the CIW, deplored the unsafe working environment provided by growers.
“Most farmworkers live in trailer homes where there’s 10 or 15 people living there,” Gonzalo explained, “and when you’re on the way to work you have 40, 50, 60 farmworkers in a bus on the way up to the fields, so the community is very vulnerable because it has been made impossible to follow very basic distancing guidelines.”
According to a document released by the National Farm Worker Ministry (NFWM), workers’ homes sometimes contain multiple inhabitants sleeping and living in one room. Many share bathing, restroom and cooking facilities with multiple unrelated individuals. Some even lack potable water, bathing facilities and soap in grower-provided housing, the lack of which already contributes to non-COVID related health conditions. The document raised concerns about these conditions facilitating rapid community spread and resulting in “transmission to dozens and, potentially, hundreds of workers at one camp or facility.”
In a recent and highly publicized New York Times op-ed by Greg Asbed, one of the CIW’s founders, Asbed enumerated that those conditions, the result of generations of grinding poverty and neglect, will act like a “superconductor” for the transmission of coronavirus.
“If something isn’t done—now—to address their unique vulnerability,” Asbed warned, “the men and women who plant, cultivate and harvest our food will face a decimating wave of contagion and misery in a matter of weeks, if not days.”
Prior to the virus, farmworkers that voiced safety and health concerns to growers were often subject to violence and abuse, and those oppressive power structures have not disappeared with the virus’ arrival. Farmworkers also do not have the power of collective bargaining or unionization. Gonzalo emphasized that if DeSantis’ office does not take immediate action to compel growers to provide farmworkers basic sanitation and other protections, growers will continue to ignore workers’ pleas because there will be no incentive to spend the money to do so. Gonzalo added that the Coalition is already working with some growers that are “ready to work and do their part in implementing these kinds of protections,” but that top-down pressure from regulatory agencies is necessary to ensure that these protections are far-reaching and assured for all farm worker communities.
Many advocates, including Gonzalo, have also argued that it should not take a global pandemic to see that these conditions require immediate action and that farmworkers have suffered abuses and human rights violations by growers for many years to the detriment of farmworkers’ and their families lives, and now, to the detriment of the national food supply.
“Farmworkers have been facing modern day slavery for decades and that food still gets to your table,” Gonzalo emphasized.
“Farmworker women have been experiencing gender-based violence for decades and that food still gets to your table, there are instances of hurricanes hitting us here in Florida and that food still gets to your table, and now there is a global pandemic affecting millions of people at a scale that we haven’t seen, and that food is, again, still getting to your table.”
Gonzalo further implored consumers to recognize that the current crisis should provide an opportunity for them to reflect upon the role of farmworkers in their community and in the food system as a whole. As consumers, “we need to reflect and understand the responsibility that we have in addressing and supporting farmworker’s needs, because we are benefitting from their work,” Gonzalo said.
“It is unfortunate that we have to wait for a crisis for there to be a sense of humanity and support, but the fact of the matter is that these communities have needed our support during the Coronavirus crisis and they will need it after this crisis is over.”
The petition’s four appeals to Governor DeSantis’ office for a field hospital in Immokalee, free testing, protective equipment and economic relief for workers have laid out crucial next steps in slowing the spread of COVID-19 and ensuring the safety of farmworkers in Immokalee and across Florida. Without farmworkers, there is no food.
The petition can be found at: https://docs.google.com/forms/d/e/1FAIpQLScnv3XKbhT_EvoHCBoit-ccdCaWIvJBE_oLM5SyYyM1Ab7p5A/viewform
Information was gathered for this article at ciw-online.org, allianceforfairfood.org, nfwm.org, and nytimes.com.