One good thing about the COVID-19 pandemic is that it’s reminded us of the plight of “essential workers.” Pre-pandemic, essential workers were often thought of as police and firefighters.
The last 14 months have proven the importance of health care providers, delivery drivers, sanitation workers and grocery store staff — those who have put themselves in harm’s way to ensure that we are protected and supply what we need to be safer at home. So what about the invisible essential workers? We can order our groceries from our phones and schedule them to be delivered or picked up without ever going into a store, but how often do we even think about those who are actually responsible for the food we eat?
Food production and delivery in this country are possible because of the work of migrant laborers. This isn’t mentioned enough when we talk immigration laws — but that’s a conversation for another time.
On March 17, Project Protect Food Systems (PPFS), a Colorado coalition working together to protect the rights of food systems workers, scheduled a pre-hearing virtual press conference for Colorado’s SB21-087, also known as the Farm Worker Bill of Rights. PPFS estimates that there are between 20,000 and 25,000 farmworkers in Colorado annually, and about 6,800 are migrant and seasonal crop laborers. The bill would require that employers of these workers provide basic protections like overtime pay, plus access to transportation to key services and permission to have visitors in employer-provided housing without interference. Also included (and highly relevant during a public health crisis), is the requirement that shared worker living spaces provided by the employer have the capacity to provide adequate room for social distancing.
Those participating in the press conference included advocates, legislators, attorneys and former farmworkers who all endorse this bill and are pushing for its advancement. Sen. Jessie Danielson, D-SD20, claimed that “employers have exploited workers for generations,” including placing them in substandard employee housing, forbidding visitors, and blocking access to food and medical services. Some are even fenced in, Danielson said, adding many farmworkers are paid below minimum wage and a large population are sex trafficking victims. Yes, even here in Colorado. Many workers are terrified to report such abuses out of fear of retaliation. Currently, many farmworkers fear retribution if they unionize and advocate for themselves.
Also, according to Towards Justice, a nonprofit law firm that seeks to advance economic justice and combat wage theft, farmworkers often work during the hottest, driest and most challenging days of the season and aren’t necessarily granted breaks during these long, excruciating hours.
The timing of this press conference was intentional. It was on that day 55 years ago that César Chávez and Dolores Huerta led 75 Latino and Filipino workers on a 340-mile march from Delano, California, to Sacramento to demand better working conditions for farmworkers. They chanted: “Sí se puede” (Yes we can), during the trek.
Farmers who are Black, Indigenous or other people of color have been denied the full economic benefits of farming — and shouldered the majority of abuses — since the formation of our country. Damien Thompson, co-director of Front Line Farming in Denver, says, “Our contemporary food system is rooted in the same system of racist [exploitation] and exclusion that formed the American experiment since its inception.”
And yet even in 2021, the treatment of BIPOC farmers is still one of this nation’s biggest injustices and a form of modern-day slavery. SB21-087 is just a start. It was moved to the Senate Appropriations Committee earlier this month and it must be advanced.