The forgotten farmhands of Kern

The treatment of farmworkers in Kern County, essential workers who were called "heroes of the pandemic," is a glaring contradiction

There is something blatantly outrageous in the way our society treats the heroes of COVID-19.

They have been and still are “essential workers,” just like those in supermarkets, public transportation, healthcare, education, retail. Even like the cops. They are the ones to whom praise was sung, those who were thanked profusely. They grow, harvest and produce the food we eat and other agricultural products. They are indispensable.

And yet they have neither been recognized nor rewarded. They work hard, but 34% of them live below the poverty line. They produce the best food, but don’t consume it. 

 And it would seem that they are invisible. As if they disappeared into the land they work so diligently. We are talking about farmworkers in California, and specifically,  about the 127,000 who live and labor in Kern County.

California: despite growers’ cry, farmworkers entitled to overtime pay

It is unacceptable that this population group has one of the lowest vaccination rates, 50%, which is below not only other “essentials,” but all employees in California.  For this reason and because of their living conditions, they suffer more from contagion, illness and death.

 According to data from UC Merced, in a comparison with the 50,000 food processing workers in the Central Valley, 78% of the farmworkers are immigrants, compared to less than half. And 67% are not citizens compared to only 26%. 

And their annual income is just $14,080 per year (!) versus $32,165.

Knowingly, we left them behind. They lack effective government representation and contact with wealthy and influential people. The only thing they have to offer is their work. 

There are activists who organize them, groups at their service and universities that train their daughters and sons. Too little, because they are not the government.

 As the Chilean poet Luis Advis wrote:

“Some friends understand us
and the others
they take their hand away ”.
                                  (Cantata Santa María de Iquique)

California: despite growers’ cry, farmworkers entitled to overtime pay

Recently, at a briefing for ethnic journalists organized by Ethnic Media Services (EMS), experts and activists described –with the help of statistics and personal stories– how these workers live.

“Fear and distrust are still widespread along with misinformation. And while vaccines are more accessible, other factors- -paying rent, avoiding eviction, keeping the electricity on, getting transportation, simply having enough time in the day–come into play,” said Sandy Close, director of EMS.

But low vaccination by itself, said Dr. Edward Flores, Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Merced, is not the problem, but, instead, just another symptom of the problem.

Here, in another statistic, is the problem or rather, the problems: 

Vaccination rates in California are directly proportional to food security. Those who have “enough food of the kind we want to eat” are 88% vaccinated. And the rate of those who do not have enough to eat is 56%. But for those without health insurance – -like immigrants — this drops to 39%. Finally, if they have not paid their rent and they think they are about to be evicted, it is only 35%.

Serious risk factors, including substandard housing, which is always rented, not owned, extreme overcrowding, food insecurity and lack of health insurance abound. For the 78% who are immigrants, there is widespread lack of knowledge of the laws and norms of our society coupled with fear of deportation. Finally, the language barrier prevents them from accessing the resources available to the rest of the population. This is especially true for the thousands of indigenous workers and their families, who in many cases speak neither Spanish nor English.

Even with all the vaccinations, for farmworkers, life has not gotten better. 

While Kern County turns the corner in the confrontation with COVID, the farmworkers are left with practically nothing.  Like many others, they are walking — working, actually through a tunnel. At the end of the tunnel sickness, hunger, misery and death await.

 If we care about these forgotten individuals, if only for selfish reasons of “herd immunity,” If we appreciate the food they produce, if only for those reasons, the government has to make immediate investments to improve the lives of these people, so that they have food security, a roof to sleep under and adequate health care.

Then and only then they will be vaccinated. And perhaps, in addition, they will have a dignified existence.

It is the obligation of the government. Because that’s what the government is for.



  • Gabriel Lerner

    Founder and co-editor of Latino Los Angeles. Editor Emeritus of La Opinion, former Editor-in-Chief. Born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, is a journalist, columnist, blogger, poet, novelist, and short story writer. Was the editorial director of Huffington Post Voces. Editor-in-chief of the weekly Tiempo in Israel. Is the father of three grown children and lives with Celia and with Rosie, Almendra and Yinyit in Los Angeles.

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