In the piercing midday heat of southern Texas, farmhand Linda Villarreal moves methodically to weed row after row of parsley, rising only occasionally to stretch her achy back and nibble on sugary biscuits she keeps in her pockets. In the distance, a green and white border patrol truck drives along the levee beside the towering steel border wall.
For this backbreaking work, Villareal is paid $7.25 per hour, the federal minimum wage since 2009, with no benefits. She takes home between $300 and $400 a week depending on the amount of orders from the bodegas – packaging warehouses which supply the country’s supermarkets with fruits and vegetables harvested by crews of undocumented mostly Mexican farmworkers.
Even before the pandemic, farms were among the most dangerous workplaces in the country, where low paid workers have little protection from long hours, repetitive strain injuries, exposures to pesticides, dangerous machinery, extreme heat and animal waste. Food insecurity, poor housing, language barriers and discrimination also contribute to dire health outcomes for farmworkers, according to research by John Hopkins Centre for a Livable Future.
After long days in the fields, Villarreal sleeps on an old couch in the kitchen-lounge as part of the house was left uninhabitable by a fire and a hurricane. Her 11-year-old son, who has ADHD, sleeps on the other couch, while two daughters share a bedroom where water leaks in through the mouldy roof. The eldest, a 16-year-old who wants to be a nurse, and her six-month old baby sleep in a room with cindered walls. The house is a wreck, but there’s no spare money for repairs.
Many undocumented farmworkers have been toiling in the fields for years, pay taxes and have American children, yet enjoy few labor rights, have extremely limited access to occupational health services and live under the constant threat of deportation. In truth, farmworkers here are never harassed while working in the fields, which advocates say suggests a tacit agreement with growers to ensure America’s food supply chain isn’t disrupted by immigration crackdowns. It’s everywhere else that these essential workers, who kept toiling throughout the pandemic, are not safe.
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