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Antonio Tovar: How Florida’s farmworkers look at the future of agriculture

The vulnerability of this group is evident because of where and how agriculture happens.

Farmwork is among the most dangerous jobs in the country, some studies suggest that this population’s life expectancy is shorter than the national average at 48 years of age. With the arrival and spread of COVID-19 in Florida’s rural areas, the vulnerability of this group is evident because of where and how agriculture happens.

For decades, the Farmworker Association of Florida has fought to improve the working and living conditions of agricultural workers; unfortunately, since 2005 when the Alfredo Bahena Act was signed by Gov. Jeb Bush the farmworker community has not had someone in the executive branch or in the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services showing concern for the challenges we face in the fields and at home under the current pandemic.

Agriculture is second only to tourism as the fuel powering Florida’s economy — an estimated $130 million annual contribution — and yet in his rush to reopen Gov. Ron DeSantis failed to protect the workers particularly farmworkers who make agriculture possible. While this would have been ludicrous anytime, it’s especially shortsighted now — as tourism has come to a screeching halt, making agricultural products the primary economic driver and preventing Florida from sinking into economic chaos while maintaining its food banks and warehouse stocks.

In tight-knit groups, farmworkers harvest the crops that will be consumed by millions of Americans. In close working conditions, farmworkers pack fruits and vegetables in every shape and color that fill grocery stores and dinner tables. And at night, farmworkers rest their heads in crowded dormitory-style living quarters, before boarding crowded buses back to the fields early the next morning.

Farmworkers are essential, irreplaceable, and unreasonably in danger of COVID-19 because we lack the basic protections for which we’ve asked back in April 24.

While other Floridians were ordered to stay home as COVID-19 raged, most farmworkers remained in the fields. For these workers, there were no other options. So, a coalition of 50 groups, including ours, demanded some protections described in a letter sent in April to Gov. DeSantis and other state leaders. In response, the silence for the most part was deafening.

One surprising exception was Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried who responded immediately. She was the only statewide leader to acknowledge our request. We already had good signs from her when in 2019 she publicly criticized the anti-immigrant law SB-168, even if it was a bit under pressure and has not mentioned again. At least she acknowledges the demographics composition of agricultural labor in Florida.

When Commissioner Fried raised many of our requests to the Governor and asked him to partner with her to provide face coverings, COVID-19 testing, and access to health care for our workers, she also shows knowledge of the impact that the illness could have in our community. In addition, she rightfully noted that less than half of farmworkers have health coverage and that they have a greater risk of respiratory illness, which puts us further in harm’s way of coronavirus. As a public servant, she spoke out while others were conveniently silent — or said nothing helpful.

To deal with the pandemic we need leaders who have plans, envision challenges, and offer solutions. As soon as some counties imposed curfews, Commissioner Fried issued essential worker letters from the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (FDACS), ensuring farmworkers could continue getting to and from fields and packinghouses despite stay-at-home orders. We even adapted the letter to send to our members since some employers refused to sign on.

We are constantly working to provide our members with prevention education and information to keep them safe — and FDACS shares this priority with us. While we released posters, flyers, and videos — even before the Florida Health Department had — Commissioner Fried issued safety guidelines for food workers in both English and Spanish, helping educate workers on ways to avoid COVID-19. Now, we are working closely together to develop a series of farmworker safety training and videos ahead of the incoming season. And we provided the first virtual COVID-19 Farm Labor Supervisor Training in collaboration with the Institute of Food and Agricultural Science at the University of Florida.

There is uncertainty on how the next winter season will impact the health and safety of workers in the fields. Our hope is that our efforts and the work of other organizations and institutions, like FDACS, IFAS, and the private sector will reduce the risk to farmworkers and the agricultural industry in general. As a society, we should be working together, making these workers welcome and safe while doing their jobs.

Planting, harvesting, and processing billions of pounds of Florida-grown crops is hard work, and the farmworkers doing it deserve better living conditions. What we do expect besides fair wages and dignity in the current time is this: don’t put us at unnecessary risk, especially from inaction by our state’s government.

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Antonio Tovar is Executive Director Farmworker Association of Florida, a 37 years old statewide grassroots membership organization. To learn more, visit floridafarmworkers.org.

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