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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

‘Farmworkers are not disposable:’ Latino activists lead marches, boycotts for farmworkers rights

Workers at an orchard pull on equipment as they prepare to thin apple trees in Yakima last month. This week,  (Elaine Thompson)

Up until he graduated from Washington State University, Bryan Vazquez used to rise before dawn to work in the fields every summer.

Still sore from the previous day’s work, he made sure to leave his house wearing a long-sleeved shirt and a bandanna on the neck to protect himself from pesticides, chemicals and the sun that was sure to be burning high in the sky later that day.

Despite the physical demands of the job, farmworkers don’t have access to health care or sick leave, said Vazquez, who is now a teacher at Wahluke Junior High in Mattawa, Washington. Fieldwork is grueling, and it’s the kind of work that takes more than it gives back, he added.

“We want to stop this exploitation, especially during this pandemic,” Vazquez said. “We will be taking care of our people.”

Vazquez and Eduardo Castañeda Diaz, a state representative candidate from Quincy and WSU graduate, plan a series of marches this week to bring to light the lack of protections for farmworkers and stand in solidarity with agricultural workers.

“We feel compelled because we know the farmworker experience, we’ve gone through it,” Vazquez said. “We want them to know that our farmworkers are human. That’s what it comes down to.”

The first march will begin in Quincy at 6 p.m. Monday at the city hall. Marches for farmworker rights will continue throughout the week in nearby cities, including Ephrata, Mattawa and Moses Lake.

As COVID-19 cases continue to skyrocket in agricultural communities, calls have been made for industry and state leaders to ensure agricultural workers are afforded proper safety measures to protect them against the virus, but critics say they’ve fallen short and early guidelines were criticized for not being enforceable.

United Farm Workers and other farmworker rights advocates filed a lawsuit in April against the state of Washington, arguing that farmworkers do not have adequate protections.

On May 13, the Department of Health and the Department of Labor & Industries released emergency farmworker housing rules, which included increased physical distancing and sanitizing efforts to reduce the risk of COVID-19 outbreaks. The rules also placed restrictions on bunk beds to increase social distancing.

Gov. Jay Inslee issued new requirements for the agriculture industry on May 28, which included requiring employers to provide personal protective equipment, adequate hand-washing stations for field workers and sanitized transportation.

Vazquez and Castañeda Diaz set up a GoFundMe page and reached out to the United Farm Workers for personal protective equipment for farmworkers and marchers.

Union leaders have recently heard from workers that generally their employers are complying with rules, including taking workers’ temperatures before shifts and providing them with PPE, said Erik Nicholson, national vice president for the United Farm Workers.

“But still the compliance is not nearly enough, and we’re still checking the fields and filing complaints as we come across places where there’s no compliance,” he said.

The union has filed about 30 complaints with Labor & Industries and is waiting for investigation results, Nicholson said.

Farmworkers have always been exploited and the current pandemic has highlighted this even further, Vazquez said, especially when they’re sent out to do their jobs without the proper safeguards.

“You feel like you don’t have a voice, right, because you’re on survival,” Vazquez said. “You fear that if you voice your opinion, you might get, you know, reprimanded or that you might get fired.”

There’s really no way to know if companies or farm owners are enforcing state rules and protections, he added.

The group has also been advocating for people to boycott apples, blueberries and cherries. These three fruits are some of the largest crops that bring in the most money for the state.

“The only way that these corporations, these big agricultural growers are going to listen to the pleas of the people and protect farmworkers and show that they are appreciated is by hitting them financially,” Castañeda Diaz said.

Both men share similar backgrounds, having come from immigrant farmworker parents and having worked in the fields themselves.

“I’ve worked alongside farmworkers for the last 10 years of my life,” Castañeda Diaz said. ” I know the struggles. I think about my family, my friends, Bryan, his family, myself and the people I’ve met in the fields.”

Seeing politicians and state leaders fall short of addressing safety precautions and instead put the onus on farmworkers educating themselves is upsetting, he said.

A draft of emergency housing rules was released April 23, calling on employers to take COVID-19 safety measures. On April 27, Rep. Tom Dent, R-Moses Lake, and other legislators from rural and agriculture-based areas signed onto a letter calling for bunk-bed restrictions to be lifted.

The letter called for a revision of bunk- bed rules and calls for flexibility in regulations for farmers to create safe workplaces.

The letter also reads “compared with the population at large, farmworkers are disproportionately young, which means they have less risk of serious complications from COVID-19.”

But recent cases across counties indicate a spike in young people getting COVID-19, some resulting in death. Earlier this month, an agricultural worker in his 30s with no underlying conditions died from COVID-19 complications, the Wenatchee World reported.

“They don’t care about the regular farm worker because some of these politicians, if not all of these politicians in rural settings, are directly invested financially in the grower side,” Castañeda Diaz said.

Dent said legislators are doing the best they can in trying to find the balance in keeping farmworkers safe and keeping the industry afloat.

“Farmworkers are very important to growers, they look out for them,” he said. “Without the workers the food wouldn’t be there.”

Vazquez said they felt the need to speak out for farmworkers and are aware of the importance of bringing the economy back from the effects of the pandemic, but it needs to be done in a humane way.

It’s not just about education, which is what political leaders seem to be focusing on, instead of discussing how farms and warehouses are being held accountable when they’re not protecting their workers, he said.

Workers on H-2A visas who rely on housing to be provided by their employers are at risk, he said. They’re essentially petri dishes for contagion and spread because they are in tight quarters with no real way to practice social distancing, Castañeda Diaz said.

“Immigrants have been historically underappreciated for their essential jobs, but what is more essential than putting food on your table?” Castañeda Diaz said.

Castañeda Diaz works as an intern with the Northwest Justice Project analyzing public records requests made by growers, as well as speaking with farmworkers.

CDC has recommended 6 feet of distance, but this isn’t happening in provided housing, he said. Additionally, agricultural growers were asking state agencies for variances to increase the limit of 15 people in housing units to 25 people, he added.

“This essentially means using farmworkers as a sacrificial lamb for the economy to keep this machine going,” Castañeda Diaz said.

“Farmworkers are not disposable.”

He was present at some of the Yakima strikes and said it was inspiring to see what the workers were able to achieve in negotiations regarding proper protections, safeguards and hazard pay.

The end goal with these marches is to keep people alive, he said, and he hopes that younger generations are able to see that it’s possible for them to advocate for their community, vote and challenge the status quo despite coming from a working background and with minimal resources.

“I believe it is time for younger generations to stand up for the rights of those who have been historically exploited,” Castañeda Diaz said.

Call to boycott apples, blueberries, cherries progress as cherry harvesting season in the state continues.