Farmworker from El Salvador explains why he risked coronavirus infection to grow America's food
Farm labourers recently designated ‘essential workers’ by Trump administration
There are few decent jobs in his nation, few good opportunities. Certainly not many that pay more than $15 an hour to work in the fields.
Yet he knows that by leaving his home and travelling to Washington state, lodged in a house with 12 men, four to a room, he is risking becoming infected with coronavirus.
“I’m really concerned. When you hear about everything that is going on. If you have any symptoms you have to go into quarantine and be isolated by yourself,” he tells The Independent.
Speaking by phone from a farm in western Washington, Juan, 34, who is married with four daughters and who did not want to use his last name, said he did not like the idea of being stuck by himself in a room. He sounded as concerned about that, as actually being infected.
“Me and some of the other guys are worried about that and we really just don’t want to be quarantined.”
He also explained why, despite the high number of infections in the US - there are more cases here and more deaths than in any other nation - he was making his third visit, and will stay here until November, when the work is done.
“The country I come from is very poor. There are no opportunities for employment. I want to help my family,” he said. “Where I live, nobody has their own home. We all live on top of each other. There’s never enough money for anything - whether you need a car, or home or even to cover your basic necessities.”
Juan, who comes from Chalatenango in the north of El Salvador, is one of more than 100,000 workers from Central American nations that arrive legally every year on H2-A visas to grow the US’s food. Most arrive in the spring and leave in November.
A requirement of the visa is that they are sponsored by an employer who provides accommodation for the workers. Yet activists say conditions vary, and that some places are crowded and have insufficient facilities for hand-washing.
Juan said at the farm he was working on, people had not been given any special masks or gloves. He has been told when they leave their cabins, they are sprayed with disinfectant.
He said there was soap and water to wash their hands, but that this had always been the case, and was not something introduced this year.
Erik Nicholson, national vice president of the United Farm Workers union, said they were seeking stricter and clearer regulations for growers from Washington state. The union was among several organisations that recently filed a lawsuit asking for greater clarity.
He said among his concerns was about workers getting sick and not having a safe place to recover.
“It’s such an irony these people are now recognised as essential workers,” he said. “Finally society has woken up. But nothing has changed substantively.”
Juan said he liked that the contribution of him and other farmworkers was being underscored by the US government.
“They’re saying we’re essential and necessary for the society,” he said. “I feel very positive about that.”