By: Juliana Hinton, Program Communications Coordinator
You likely have a cushy job, like myself, in which air conditioning is attainable and you have a desk and chair. Where you sit comfortably for 6-8 hours, and take breaks according to when you need them. Now, imagine the exact opposite of this truth. A blistering sun beating down on you, heat engulfing your lungs, you’re on your feet, and your back is bent forwards at a 90 degree angle the entire day. Hell, more than the entire day, 13 hours to be precise. This is farm work. You might think you have an idea of what farm work consists of; pruning, plucking, planting. Rather, it is the use of every single muscle in your body past the point of exhaustion, and then further past that. All while the sun, incessantly, looms over. Summers for farmworkers are dangerous, deadly, (for outdoor workers around the world, chronic kidney disease is becoming a common). Heat indexes soar over the 90’s (F) for large portions of the work day.
A few of these things crossed my mind after visiting farms in Maryland. During my visit I was focused on 1.) recording videos for future AFOP H & S productions. 2.) the heat, it’s hard to not think about. Except when you’re more focused on providing for your family or surviving, in this case, your health and the heat get put on the back burner. The only refuge in the fields are your ability to cool off by sweating, a lot, and drinking water to keep up with that. (Wearing a hat helps, but resting in shade is mandatory in order to regain strength.) After drinking all that water, you know what comes next, bathroom break. That is, if bathrooms breaks are permitted by growers, or, if a worker feels using the bathroom outweighs earning more $ for the amount of produce picked. Another reality hits you in the field: often farmworkers only take one bathroom break per day and wait until they get home at 8pm to use the bathroom again. Being paid by the bucket or bag or pound is what drives them to have to do this.
And you realize you aren’t cut out for that type of work after just 3 hours around and in the fields. But then how is anyone? The heat is defeating to say the least. You might wonder, well, why do people choose farm work if it’s such a dangerous job? (between weather, machinery, and pesticide exposure…) It’s not really a choice, it’s a decision made by necessity. As the majority of farmworkers in the U.S. are typically immigrants originally from Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador, or Guatemala they’re coming from regions that are either hostile or facing economic deficits, seeking any job and a glimpse of “the American dream”. An idea that’s often misconstrued in other countries; that it’s highly possible to make a decent living in the U.S.
It’s really a system that is set up against low wage earners and immigrants. Closer to a reality that- if you have an unfair start, you’re likely to work yourself like a horse until you die. That’s why there needs to be different opportunities that are free and widely available throughout the country for those who want to further their education or change careers.
Having succeeded in capturing all the shots that I needed and making new friends, I turned my back as the farmworkers continued their tasks diligently. My mind was then engrossed with the notion that because of my privileged background, I’m walking away. It felt strange, to walk away and not have to return to the heat, or think about washing my hands drenched in pesticide residue, or wake up early and do the same grueling work again and again.
All I could think about was how grateful I am for them, their hard work, their effortless smiles and friendly demeanor despite their struggles. It sits there with you, once you witness this part of the country. Which you never see but reap the benefits of everyday you eat a cheap package of strawberries or when tomatoes go on sale. With AFOP Health & Safety we acknowledge that in order to bring justice to a marginalized population such as farmworkers, they need to be healthy and feel safe before they’re able to uplift themselves in other aspects of their lives.