As the new coronavirus spreads out of US cities and into agricultural communities, farmworkers fear for their lives. Immokalee is inland, more than 50 miles from the nearest hospital, and almost 40% of its roughly 24,000 people live below the poverty line. Greg Asbed, a MacArthur fellow and cofounder of Coalition for Immokalee Workers (CIW), describes Immokalee’s agricultural workers as “imported largely from Mexico,” living in crowded “clustered housing” and suffering “generations of grinding poverty and neglect.” (Herald Tribune, 4/13/20) The biggest buyers of produce, like Publix and Walmart supermarkets, were asked to pay a “penny-per-pound” premium as aid for workers’ families, but they declined because they are not the employers. Workers are employed by agribusiness, labor brokers, and the individual farm owners. Unincorporated Immokalee is rated a very undesirable place to live in the desirable state of Florida, where agriculture is the second largest industry after tourism. It has high crime, poor wages, and inadequate medical care. As tomatoes rot on the vine, not worth the wages for picking because restaurants and schools are closed in the crisis, workers have no work. No wonder they are asking for a field hospital in case the virus hits their clustered housing.
As Florida welcomes thousands of well-off new residents every year, agricultural areas are left out of the boom. A key word in Asbed’s description is “imported.” Less than 30% of agricultural workers speak English. The majority are on H-2A Temporary Agricultural Visas. These run for a maximum of three years and require return to home country for at least three months while employers apply for each one-year renewal. There are fees to be paid, paperwork to do, and dislocation required each time. Described in the statute as necessary for “jobs Americans won’t do,” these permits have no minimum-wage guarantee, no full-time full-year guarantee, no Social Security and no Medicare benefits. Yet they are very burdensome to keep up. US government estimates put the proportion of completely undocumented farmworkers at 70%. Many of these are probably lapsed, trapped, H-2A visa holders.
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