1 Year with COVID: The Effects on Farm and Factory Workers
By Alejandra Tolley
COVID-19 has drastically changed the way we operate in society. Birthdays, holidays, celebrations, and graduations are now virtual. We've gotten used to living at work, or as they say “working remotely," and we’ve all probably gone through a plethora of hand sanitizer by now. While adjusting to this new normal, we've found ourselves drowning in uncertainty and fear. A year later, we’ve seen just how strong our communities came together to feed and help one another. Community fridges started to pop up, food banks became flooded with donations, and we saw firsthand what mutual-aid and collective care can do.
But we also saw the rise of systemic abuse towards restaurant, agriculture, and factory workers. In a time where our essential workers needed the most protection, they were left vulnerable by their employers and our government. They were put on the frontlines of this deadly virus unprotected, and risked their health to provide us our food. Agriculture workers were categorized as essential employees but were denied proper PPE, healthcare, COVID testing, and safer working conditions. According to NCFH (National Center for Farmwork Health), California had the biggest spike of COVID cases affecting factory workers.
Poultry supplier, Foster Farms, confirmed 390 COVID cases causing 8 deaths. Due to this mistreatment, United Farm Worker Union sued Foster Farms for refusing to institute better and safer working conditions for their employees.
Unfair treatment followed to Tyson, one of the largest poultry factories in the US. In Iowa, 7 managers were fired for creating a betting pool on how many of their workers would contract the virus. With the plant employing about 2,800 employees, there were over 1,000 confirmed cases. In response, Tyson has faced multiple wrongful death lawsuits from family members of those who have died from the virus. Mistreatment and exposure of inhumane working conditions became a common pattern with many poultry plants across the country. Although meat production declined by 40%, factory farm workers were forced to work 12 hour days for 6-7 days of the week, leaving the workers to fend for themselves as COVID-19 was spreading rapidly through their workspaces.
Agriculture workers were also disproportionately affected by the global pandemic. The previous administration proposed to cut wages for field workers, lowering wages by over 5% and up to 46% in Idaho according to United Farms Worker’s Foundation. In the midst of the pandemic, they found themselves working in hazardous conditions. According to a study done at UC Berkeley, most farmers commute and work in overcrowded environments, making them the most susceptible to COVID-19. Due to significant agriculture job cuts, over 50% of farmworkers who were testing positive in Monterey County, CA still went to work to avoid financial losses.
When we advocate for systemic change in our food systems, we must take into account the working conditions of our farm and factory workers. They are met with mistreatment, disrespect, and an inhumane work environment. Despite being seen as essential employees, they've encountered the worst consequences of this virus. Here are some organizations working towards creating a better system for our Farm Workers that you should support:
@UFWF - United Farmer’s Work Foundation
@farmworkerjustice - Farm Worker Justice
@cafarmworker_foundation - California Farm Workers Foundation
@latinocommfdn - Latino Community Foundation