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U.S. Agricultural System’s Deadly Apartheid

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

The NY Times of March 1, 2021 cited some chilling facts about agricultural workers and Covid 19:

“In some areas, up to 40 percent of the workers tested for the virus had positive results. The Rev. Francisco Gómez at Our Lady of Soledad church in Coachella said his parish had been averaging 10 burials a week. “You’re talking about an apocalyptic situation,” he said.

“Hundreds of coronavirus outbreaks have crippled the work force on farms and in food processing centers across the country. Researchers from Purdue University estimate that about 500,000 agricultural workers have tested positive for the virus and at least 9,000 have died from it.”

Some of the infections are to shed and meat packing workers who work inside in crowded and unsafe conditions in the best of times.  But many of these workers work outside.  So their infections likely don’t come in the course of work but in the places where they live and during the ride to and from work, especially if they ride in labor contractor buses and so on.

Agricultural workers often live in poor and overcrowded housing, and lack access to proper hygiene and medical care.  These are part of the picture. And it needs to be said that not only are workers trapped in these conditions but their ability to protest and change them are limited by the deprivation of basic human and civil rights.

It’s been 35 years since there has been a pathway to legalization for millions of farmworkers and many millions of other workers. When “amnesty” – an absurd word because people forced to leave their homelands through no fault of their own and systematically denied their rights should not have to be “forgiven” – was granted, it was in the years when growers were still trying to reverse the gains of the farm worker movement of the 1970s which had pushed up wages and improved conditions.  After the bitterly fought 1979 lettuce strike in California, for example, wages in the fields went up to $5.60 an hour which would be more than $21.00 an hour today.

The growers not only accepted the 1986 immigration reform act (IRCA) they went one step further.  They endorsed a Special Agricultural Workers addition which allowed up to a million farm workers to gain legal status.  Were the growers suddenly struck by the need to respect human rights for their workers?  Not exactly. They saw the legalization as a means to flood the fields with workers and force wages down.  They even sent recruiters to Mexico to entice young workers to come north with the promise of legalization!

The results were predictable.  The employers created a surplus of workers which allowed for wages to fall and conditions to be undermined.

The toll Covid 19 has exacted on farm workers would seem to point to another example of employers’ callous disregard for the well-being, to say nothing of the survival of the very workers who make their businesses possible.  But it’s pointless to demonize individual growers or companies.  We’re talking here about a system which is bigger and more pervasive than any grower or meat packing operation.

The system referred to goes by two names, capitalism and apartheid.  Capitalism rewards the most ruthless exploiters, by allowing them to bring their product to the “free market” at a competitive advantage and thereby inflate their profits.   Apartheid, the system by which one racial or ethnic group is marginalized and deprived of basic rights, allows for the more “efficient” and extreme exploitation.  Apartheid is a caste-like system that perpetuates deadly conditions in work, housing, access to medical care, social services, and so on, by enforcing a special category of people.  By denying people their rights, by maintaining a force of repression (ICE) to threaten and harass them, leaving them in fear of deportation, incarceration and family separation — this apartheid system perpetuates itself by deterring those thus enslaved from rising in their own defense.

There is, once again, a call for a “comprehensive immigration reform”.  The Biden government has done so because of the promises he made in the lead up to the election.  We can expect the Republifascists, playing the nativist, overt racist card to oppose any effort to “reward law breakers” while they talk about “rapists”, “gangs” and the like, while never allowing words like farmworkers, meatpackers, construction workers, home care workers, housekeepers, cooks, etc. to cross their ‘patriotic’ lips.

But it is the people who are not mesmerized or lobotomized by fascist or white supremacist delusions and understand and sympathize with the conditions of the people upon whose work the entire society depends, who should come under scrutiny at a moment like this.  Those who oppose these brutal conditions of exploitation – such as those the deadly spread of Covid 19 among farm workers — those who oppose fascism and who looked on in horror as a near coup took place on January 6 – should now rise themselves and demand that the people who have most born the brunt of this apartheid system, who have born the brunt of the fascist race-mongering, be granted a path to full rights, to legalization and citizenship.

Democrats in power at other recent times failed to take any meaningful steps towards eliminating the apartheid system.  If any progress is going to be made, it is going to have to come from the sustained and powerful movement from the people.

Whether from the churches, mosques, or synagogues, or from the unions, civic groups, schools and colleges and city halls – there needs to be an outcry and appropriate public action to put anti-fascism and anti-apartheid politics squarely and powerfully into play with a demand that the actions now being given lip service by the Biden government, be realized.

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