Agriculture is Virginia’s largest private industry. Eight million acres of agricultural land account for more than 30% of all the state’s land. Over 6000 immigrant farmworkers come to Virginia each year to harvest its crops. Yet, the lives of these farmworkers take place far from towns and completely separated from local community life. These workers, brought by growers from Mexico and other countries, live and work in the state for 3 to 11 months each year, harvesting crops and living in labor camps located on their employers’ property, often hidden in trees or down long dusty roads that meander through fields. Virginia permitted 460 such camps this year.
Minimal permitting standards for worker housing mean that, after workers spend most daylight hours in the hot sun or packinghouses, they return to crowded dilapidated rooms with few toilets or bathing facilities. Some camps have only portable toilets and many workers have only sinks for laundering clothes. Most workers must cook their own meals, often after returning from 10-12 hours of work. We met workers this summer who returned to their camp at 10 p.m. each night, only to head back to the fields at 6:30 the next morning. As with most Virginia farmworkers, Sunday was their only day to rest and do laundry and they depended on their crew leader to take them to a grocery store to cash checks, send money to their families and buy food for the week.
LAJC’s farmworker team meets with workers on evenings and weekends at camps, churches and markets. We share information about their legal rights and help them demand and obtain unpaid wages, medical help and assistance with workers compensation applications. During many visits, we are just the people who listen to their stories and provide information and companionship in a country where they know no one other than their employers and co-workers.
Workers often face threats of assault or being reported to immigration for complaining about housing and working conditions or simply for talking to legal services staff. They suffer daily exposure to pesticides, often resulting in burning eyes and nausea and they work in the blaring sun, afraid to take breaks to drink water or rest in the shade, for fear they won’t make their picking quota. They tolerate disrespect and abuse by crew leaders, who push them beyond safe physical bounds and demand higher production as well as complete obedience to these demands. LAJC often provides their only avenue for redressing the many indignities and legal violations they suffer while picking the food for our tables.
The isolation of the labor camps exacerbates the language and cultural barriers many immigrants experience. The workers come without their families, who are not eligible for visas to join them, and usually have only a few hours each week to leave the camps. Most do not have transportation and are dependent on employers and crew leaders to take them to the market once a week. This isolation leaves workers vulnerable to exploitation by unscrupulous employers who prefer their living and working conditions stay hidden.
We have an answer for those employers who believe they have absolute control over these workers: The men and women who work in the fields and packinghouses are the backbone of the agricultural industry and an essential element in the movement toward sustainable and humane food production. LAJC will continue to meet with workers in the camps and to bring their stories to light, to connect them with local communities while they live and work in our state, and to ensure that they do not remain hidden.