Collective sympathy came quickly and very soon, all around the globe, millions of people were acknowledging the arduous and near-heroic work of doctors and nurses on the frontline against the pandemic. Gratitude extended to the equally crucial workers in transport and logistics; food processing and distribution; waste collection as well as social workers and cleaners. In short, all these working class sectors, ignored and trampled upon by decades of neoliberal austerity and shrinking of the public sector, were suddenly (re)discovered as indispensable.
So, the pandemic has revealed another stark paradox of the capitalist production system: while "low-skilled" jobs are now, exceptionally, "essential jobs", the reality is that crucial jobs are not the best protected, but the most vulnerable.
Despite the cheers for the heroes (which they undoubtedly are), a large and crucial sector of the working class, transnational and local alike, was much slower to merit a minimum of attention and in many contexts remains invisible. The millions of agricultural workers in the fields of agribusiness are at the mercy of highly financialized global commodity chains, which supply processing plants and supermarkets eager to satisfy their demanding consumers.
Day laborers, seasonal and temporary contract workers, pendular workers and settlers, adults, teenagers, and too many children. For them, even the most basic measures to prevent COVID-19 infections are all but impossible. Staying home is synonymous with spending all day in the crowded quarters where many live during the working seasons. Seeing a doctor requires having access to one, meaning social security, a stable employment contract and, in many cases, a defined immigration status.
In a world that continues to romanticize peasant and family agriculture — but is simultaneously unwilling to give up its perennial and ubiquitous fruits and vegetables subjected to meticulous quality controls — it is relatively easy to overlook the work of agricultural laborers, and therefore their vulnerability to the virus or even their very existence. As Abel Barrera, director of the Mexican human rights organization Tlachinollan, says, “Without land in their own land, [farm workers] randomly go out into the agricultural fields of northwest Mexico and disperse until they become invisible."
Many manufacturing industries have kept their production chains active although they are not considered essential and many voices have rightly criticized the irresponsibility of employers. However, silence has outweighed criticism when it comes to agriculture. Much has been said about the future of the global food system in recent months, about production and consumption chains and how governments, corporations and consumers will have to transform them. Little has been said, and even less has been done, to ensure the health and dignity of those who make that food system possible: agricultural workers.
The pandemic has merely exposed longstanding problems. In Mexico, one of the first decisions the MORENA government made on agriculture in 2019 was to end PAJA (Support Program for Agricultural Day Laborers), the only public policy that supported rural migrant workers, and thereby confirming the continuity of a model based on increasing export agriculture and over-exploited labour. In what appears to be more of a version of post-revolutionary cardinism than a leftist pro-worker proposal, the federal government reinstated guaranteed prices for small farmers producing basic crops as part of a plan to achieve food sovereignty. Recently, the program was extended to medium sized producers to alleviate economic difficulties linked to the pandemic. The biggest absentees from agricultural support programs in times of pandemic are the more than 4 million agricultural workers in the country. Many will lose their jobs as the commercial flow of fruits and vegetables abroad is reduced.
The whimsical seasonality of agriculture meant that the pandemic struck European countries at a bad time. Had it not been for COVID-19, hundreds of thousands of workers from Eastern Europe would have travelled west between March and April to harvest asparagus, strawberries, blackberries and so many other indispensable fruits and vegetables. Germany employs about 300,000 temporary workers and France 20, 000. British agricultural employers immediately implored their government and the Romanian government to allow dozens of charter flights to transport the workers, at the risk of seeing tons of food rotting in the fields. It did not matter that Romania had so far been an example of prevention and mitigation of the pandemic (and the UK quite the opposite), or that thousands of essential workers needed to travel, saturating the airports. Nor did it seem to matter that, on their return, they could represent a greater risk and additional burden for the Romanian health system (which would have to cover the costs). The only thing that counted is that cheap labour carried out the harvest.
In Florida's tomato growing area, renowned for its historical workers' struggles, agricultural work does not stop. Hygienic conditions are appalling and access to clinics and hospitals is the worst in the state in geographical terms, not to mention the economic obstacles. Despite this and other examples, it is still very difficult to raise the voices of agricultural workers around the world.
Without a system that democratically organizes solidarity between individuals by planning social needs, it will be difficult to overcome the contradictions of the current model. The precarious work of hundreds of millions of people compensates for the overconsumption of a minority, especially when it comes to the central element of our lives: food. The COVID-19 pandemic will not change the social relations on which this and other contradictions are based. But it can help lift the shrouds and outline horizons of solidarity and joint action among agricultural workers who are geographically divided but closely linked to global food production and consumption chains. Agriculture and the global food system are undoubtedly the space where these struggles are most urgent.
Photo: Linnaea Mallette