At this writing, I participate in a healthcare clinic in the farmlands of Washington. Due largely to the demands of their jobs and poor living conditions, migrant farmworkers have higher rates of work-related injuries, chronic conditions, acute illnesses and infectious diseases compared with other populations. Complicating matters is the fact that farmworkers often are impoverished, uninsured and foreign-born, which means many face financial, cultural and language barriers to receiving health care. Most migrant farmworkers earn annual incomes below the poverty level and few receive benefits such as Social Security or worker’s compensation.
The transient nature of the work often prevents migrants from establishing any local residency. That simple fact excludes them from benefits such as Medicaid and food stamps. The majority are either U.S. citizens or legal residents of the United States. Some foreign workers enter the United States under guest-worker programs when there are not enough available workers to satisfy the demand.
Still, like the one I currently am at, there are approximately 159 migrant health centers scattered across the country. These clinics and associated healthcare fares are partially funded by federal grants. Unfortunately, many clinics are poorly located. For instance, in Louisiana, there is only one such clinic. It sits in the rural town of Independence, which is tucked in the southeast corner of the state near the Mississippi border.
Although many of the migrant farmworkers seen are relatively young, many have complicating diseases such as diabetes, hypertension and other metabolic conditions. Chronic diseases tend to develop earlier among migrants because many are too poor to buy nutritious food and few receive preventive care. And from our informal poll, only 20% of migrant and seasonal farmworkers reported seeking any health care services during the past several years.
Upon further research, I learned farmer workers have virtually no rights under federal labor laws: no right to days off, no right to overtime and no right to collective bargaining. On average, migrant field workers earn about $26.00 a day or about $.06 per piece of fruit picked. An onion picker usually nets 60 sacks of onions daily equating to $.65 per sack for a whopping $39.00.
Children of migrant farm laborers stay at home. There is no education. Many start working in the fields at 8 years old. Within two years they work as hard as as others, but it’s still a lot of work at just 10 years old. When children work, they don’t keep any of all the money. Their parents keep most of the money earned to pay bills or other things.
As I sit and watch the workers move about, it seems very strange. Slavery is one of the things that everyone agrees is unethical. In fact there is such general agreement that most people would probably say that ‘slavery is wrong just because it’s wrong.’ Yet, when we go to the market and complain about the high cost of fruits and vegetables, do we really think about it? We do not find this at all that unethical?
I will continue to think in the moment … and just how damn lucky I have it.