Story at a glance
- Though farmworkers were deemed essential and have started to finally receive vaccines, many of them, especially those who are undocumented, face multiple barriers that keep them isolated and vulnerable.
- Farmworkers suffer from a lack of protections and benefits that keep them living a hand-to-mouth existence.
- Organizations such as Justice for Migrant Women and Farmworker Justice are working to push forward policies that better protect farmworkers.
When Norma Flores López was growing up, her least favorite crop to pick was the onion.
“For any 12-year-old coming back from spring break, the last thing they want us to smell like was onions, and let me tell you: once you have that smell on your hands, you cannot wash it off,” says López.
“That made me very not popular at school [she laughs], so those were actually sort of my first moments of realizing, oh man, I’m not like some of these other kids. These kids were coming back from spring break with a suntan from the beach, and I was coming back very tan because I was out in the field helping my parents.”
Now the Chief Programs Officer for Justice for Migrant Women, López comes from generations of agricultural and farm workers. Despite being a natural-born U.S. citizens, both of her parents dropped out of school by the end of the sixth grade — heading to the fields to help their parents out.
“It didn’t matter that they were U.S. born, and I point that out because I think that people tend to think like this is an issue of people who are undocumented,” she says. “Pointing out the desperate poverty that my U.S. born [parents] grew up in is important. They ended up not being able to get an education, but instead were dedicated to a life of working in the field, and that’s what we ended up being raised as well.”
López’ parents are two of the nation’s 2.5 million farmworkers, an estimated 32 percent of which are female, including thousands of teens and girls as young as 12. While the exact number is unknown, at least 300,000 farmworkers are under the age of 18.
As she got older, López began to work with programs meant to aid families of farmers and migrant children. It is through sharing her firsthand experiences that made her realize the power of storytelling to create a lasting change and impact.
Now, she works alongside other inspiring women such as Mónica Ramírez, a lawyer and activist who founded the organization Justice for Migrant Women. Ramírez also came from a family of farmworkers and has devoted her life to serving this key group of essential workers that are often forgotten, most recently raising more than $4 million in aid for farmworkers affected by the pandemic.
“I think what’s important to notice is that farmworkers have been historically left out of a lot of protections that I think many people take for granted,” says López. “They don’t have the right to organize, don’t have guaranteed overtime pay, the benefit of retirement, and those that are undocumented are particularly vulnerable. They’re doing everything to be able to help this country, but in the end they will not have any sort of benefits, or any retirement plan.”
Also considered by experts to be highly vulnerable are the many women and girls working in agriculture, whose jobs are low-paid, dangerous and isolated, putting them at risk of sexual abuse, including sexual harassment and exploitation, by bosses, crew leaders and co-workers. López tells us this is an issue that has only been exacerbated by the pandemic, as female farmworkers and migrants have been stuck at home in small communities and often subject to domestic abuse.
For many farmworkers working in rural areas, it has also been a challenge to book appointments to receive a coronavirus vaccination. For those who are able to prove residency, challenges such as access to broadband, language assistance, transportation and proximity all pose barriers to these essential workers, who aren’t able to access essential services.
“These are the kinds of issues that we try to flag for many top political leaders—you know, as they’re putting policies together, asking them to recognize that there are people that are being left out and those that are being left out are particularly vulnerable,” says López.
For many undocumented workers, their top priority remains establishing a direct pathway to citizenship. A vision for that pathway seems to be getting increasingly clear. Just a few days ago, the House passed the Farm Workforce Modernization Act with bipartisan support, providing seasonal workers with a program to earn legal status if they are continually employed in the agriculture sector.
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