An outbreak of coronavirus infections and three related deaths at a fruit farm in Washington state has spotlighted inadequate safety measures taken to protect seasonal farmworkers, according to independent news site Crosscut.
The safety lapses at Gebbers Farms, one of the biggest apple and cherry producers in the Pacific Northwest, have led some migrant workers to cut short their seasonal contracts and return home, forfeiting monthly salaries worth many times more than what they can earn in their countries of origin.
Juan Carlos, Mexican farmworker at Gebbers Farms, told Crosscut he and colleagues realized that it “was a choice between work and life, so we chose life.”
Workers said that colleagues were not always tested for COVID-19 or given access to a doctor, and those who fell ill were sent to remote isolation camps with no cellphone reception. In August, after more than 120 coronavirus infections and three deaths had been reported at the farm, the Washington state Secretary of Health ordered Gebbers Farms to test its labor of 4,500 people. The order noted that the farm was not following safety rules, including allowing too many people to bunk together living quarters, according to Crosscut.
New agricultural safety guidelines designed to protect the workers still fall short, according to migrant worker advocates. Attorney Andrea Schmitt sued the state on behalf of Familias Unidas por la Justicia, a union based in Burlington in Skagit County, over the new rules. Washington’s Department of Health and Department of Labor and Industries (L&I) initially considered banning bunk beds, but changed course when it became apparent that doing so would require new housing arrangements or workforce cuts, according to the lawsuit.
“We believe that the industry leaders used politics to pressure and influence state agencies,” Rosalinda Guillen, director of farmworker organizing and advocacy group Community to Community, told Crosscut. “We kept seeing through this pandemic how racist regulatory systems are against Black and brown people.”
“We’re relegated to the margins,” she said.
Last week, Washington mandated agricultural employers to ensure that a licensed health care provider visits each worker in isolation twice a day and notify L&I within 24 hours whenever a worker is quarantined. The rules apply to workers living in temporary worker housing.
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