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"We are not disposable people." Farmworkers speak out on conditions that have led to outbreaks.

Migrant workers, USDA, farmers

He says he arrived in Michigan in March. He came from Mexico with a temporary farmworker visa. He spent his days working with plants in a greenhouse. At night, he lived in worker housing, sharing a room and sleeping in bunk beds.

As spring went on, and the pandemic worsened, he says nothing changed at the farm.

El dueño no hacía la precauciones,” the worker says.

The owner didn’t take any precautions.

As time went on and more people got coronavirus, more workers took precautions, the worker says, but the owner didn’t talk to them about it.

The worker didn’t want to give his name or the name of the farm where he worked, because he feared he wouldn’t get work again. He spoke to Michigan Radio with translations from Olivia Villegas, an attorney at Farmworker Legal Services.

The worker says in early May, he tested positive for coronavirus himself.

Outbreaks on Michigan farms have continued into June. Local health departments in at least three counties – Branch, Lapeer and Oceana – have reported dozens of cases of coronavirus traced to local farms.

Farmers contacted by Michigan Radio for this story either didn’t return calls, or declined to comment.

One person who did speak to us is Craig Anderson, manager of the Agricultural Labor and Safety Services program at the Michigan Farm Bureau.

He says the challenges keeping workers safe on farms are pretty much the same as in other workplaces.  

“And we’re all facing the same dilemma in terms of not fully understanding some of the transmission characteristics of COVID,” Anderson says.

But he said, farmers have been doing their best, learning on the fly, working together to find solutions to keep workers safe.

Others, though, say it’s not enough.

"...not only is the work dangerous, but the individuals who do it are invisible to the general public."

“From the clients that we, MIRC, have heard from, from the workers we’ve heard from, they aren’t doing enough,” says Diana Marin, supervising attorney for the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center, or MIRC.

She’s been working with multiple clients who’ve gotten the coronavirus. And to her, this pandemic is just the latest example of how farmworkers are mistreated.

“For the agriculture industry, not only is the work dangerous, but the individuals who do it are invisible to the general public,” Marin says.

Marin has been working with one client in Oceana County, who earlier in the year went through orientation at Todd Greiner Farms.

The client says she was told the farm would provide masks, wash them at the end of the day, and redistribute then. She was worried about the idea that masks would be reused by different workers.

Yo hice la pregunta.”

I asked the question, she says, through a translator provided by MIRC.

The next day, she says she was told she wouldn’t get work at the farm.  

Now, the farm is one of the ones that had an outbreak. According to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, 67 workers at Todd Greiner Farms have tested positive for the virus.

MIRC filed a workplace safety complaint with the state on behalf of this worker.

The farm did not return a call asking for comment

Farms are subject to the same coronavirus safety regulations as other businesses. And there’s an executive orderin effect to require more precautions in farmworker housing.

Michigan Radio spoke to one other agricultural worker, another client of MIRC who tested positive for coronavirus. She said she wanted to speak up so that more workers would know they have rights.

“Ellos están obligados a cuidar a su gente,” this worker says.

They are obligated to take care of their people. It’s because of us they have what they have, she adds. 

“No somos personas desechables.”

We are not disposable people, she says.

Want to support reporting like this? Consider making a gift to Michigan Radio today.

Dustin Dwyer reports enterprise and long-form stories from Michigan Public’s West Michigan bureau. He was a fellow in the class of 2018 at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard. He’s been with Michigan Public since 2004, when he started as an intern in the newsroom.
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