Things That Matter

Farmworkers Are Suffering Through Cruel Weather Conditions To Put Food On Our Tables, Here’s How To Help Them

Let’s say it together: climate change is real and it’s already here. There is no longer denying that climate change isn’t real or that it won’t affect us. It’s too dangerous to go down that path.

So far this year, huge swathes of the country (and the planet for that matter) have experienced record-shattering heatwaves that climatologists describe as a once in 1,000 year occurrence. Much of the worst of the heat has hit communities in California’s Central Valley and in the valleys of Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia, areas where agriculture remains big business – and where farmworkers (many of whom are undocumented) face the greatest risks posed by a changing climate.

Heatwaves have shattered records throughout the country in 2021.

The so-called ‘heat dome’ that set up over the Western United States and Canada in June (and again in July) brought brutal and deadly heat along with it. Hundreds of people died from Oregon to British Columbia as a result of the record-breaking heatwaves.

Portland, Oregon reached an all-time high of 116° F – beating out its former high temperature of 107° F. In Seattle, Washington, there had only been three instances of temperatures in the 100s since 1894, but this summer the city was in the triple digits for three days in a row, hitting an all-time high of 108° F. Even on Mount Rainier – at elevations above 10,000 feet that don’t normally rise above freezing – temperatures reached the mid-70s.

These temperatures were absolutely extreme and, according to scientists, will be far more common in the future.

At the same time, farmworkers were busy supplying our nation with food and supplies.

Despite the deadly heat, farmworkers were still in the fields picking cherries, harvesting greens, and other foods and supplies to feed the U.S. and the world.

For most workers, if they don’t work, they don’t get paid, so they risked their lives to survive. They are willing to work under these conditions because they get paid per shift and not showing up translates into not being paid, and possibly not being chosen to work again. Because the extent of the damage caused by the heat remained uncertain, many of these workers wanted to get what could be the last few paydays before a hiatus with no income. 

Some states have taken action to protect workers but is it enough?

During an extreme heatwave in 2005, at least four farmworkers died in California due to the heat. The state enacted emergency orders to prevent similar deaths, becoming the first to do so in the U.S. Under these new rules, employers were finally required to provide water, rest, and shade to workers.

But since 2005, heatwaves have become far more extreme and far more common yet the rules meant to protect farmworkers haven’t kept up the pace.

Absent those rules, it’s workers of color who have faced the greatest consequences of dangerous heat across the U.S., an investigation by Columbia Journalism Investigations, NPR, KPCC and The California Newsroom has found.

So why aren’t authorities doing more? Especially when they acknowledge that these deaths are preventable. In a statement to Laist, Cal/OSHA said “We believe that virtually all heat-related deaths and illnesses can be prevented. Periods of high heat are part of our new reality worldwide, and definitely in California.”

Here’s how we as consumers can help support essential farmworkers.

With a lack of protection from the state or federal level, it’s up to us to support our community. Farmworkers literally feed the world and yet are afforded very little in the way or rights or protections. The crucial contribution that farmworkers make to the food system has only heightened amid the C0VID-19 pandemic, as farmworkers are among the list of critical positions that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security encouraged to continue a normal working schedule.

However, it’s time that we as a community step up and help support farmworkers by pushing our elected officials to offer more protections or even making a donation to help provide supplies. Here are some of our top resources to help support the community:

La Via Campesina

La Via Campesina is an international that works to promote social justice and worker dignity around the world. As a group, they’re focused largely on amplifying the voices of farmworkers and decentralizing the power of corporate-driven agriculture.

Migrant Justice

Migrant Justice works to strengthen the farmworker community and they organize for economic justice and human rights. The group also invests in leadership development, which helps build the next generation of migrant and farmworker leaders in the community. Among their accomplishments is the Milk with Dignity agreement with Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream, an industry contract to implement a worker-driven social responsibility program.

United Farmworkers of America

UFW is among the largest farmworkers groups in the U.S. and was founded by César Chavez. Their work to protect labor rights in the agricultural sector continues today as they have facilitated dozens of UFW union contract victories that secured farmworkers’ rights including fair wages, overtime pay, protection from occupational health hazards, and more.

You can also educate yourself about the National Center for Farmworker Health, by clicking here.

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