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American’s Food Supply Chain Was Already Deadly. Then Came the Wildfires.

There has been some modest movement from Democrats to address the harms of the industry: In 2019, California’s OSHA issued an emergency resolution that required employers to supply farmworkers with masks when the AQI reached 151. Hoping to make this a federal law, Senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley introduced the Farmworker Smoke Protection Act following a series of Oregon wildfires in 2018, which would force employers to provide their farmworkers with N95 masks when they are exposed to toxic air. In two years, the only action taken on the bill has amounted to two committee readings.

Then, last December, the House passed the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, which, while not without notable shortcomings, such as a Republican-mandated $1,000 fine for approved applicants, would grant legal employment and resident status to qualifying undocumented farmworkers. As Armando Elenes, the secretary treasurer for the United Field Workers, explained to High Country News, “when you go into negotiations, you want the Cadillac, but sometimes you got to settle for a Chevy.” But even with the concessions, the bill, like the Smoke Protection Act, has spent the past nine months languishing in a Senate committee.

Union organizers, more than government officials, have frequently been forced to step up to ensure that even the most basic needs are being met. Last Thursday, organizers with UFW passed out N95 masks to California farmworkers beneath an orange midday sky. In Oregon, Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste Executive Director Reyna Lopez wrote a public letter to Democratic Governor Kate Brown and the state’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration director, asking OSHA to “implement guidance that would create clear instructions to employers for levels of fire smoke with a ‘no work’ policy when cities and counties are at level 2 and 3 during wildfires.”

There are also alternative industry models that attempt to resolve some of the same harms from the other side: As detailed by a recent piece in The Nation, agricultural giants are able to avoid hefty fines and dodge lawsuits for all this heinous behavior by having third-party labor contractor companies step in and take care of the hiring and housing of both H-2A—a federal visa program for seasonal farmworkers—and undocumented workers. Organizations like the Coalition of Immokalee Workers’ Fair Food Program (FFP), founded in 2011, have attempted to create some sense of accountability by conducting routine audits of participating companies, requiring legally binding contracts that hold companies responsible for stolen wages and illegal work conditions, and establishing a multilingual hotline for workers to report sexual harassment. FFP’s success paints a pleasant picture of what farm work should be in America: A well-paid and well-protected profession for all who enter it and a worthwhile career for those who want it.

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