Considered essential workers during the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, farm workers in Immokalee, Florida, are part of the backbone of the state’s agriculture industry. However, they do not receive adequate health protections from the state. The farm workers’ rights group, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), developed a list of demands to keep workers safe and is calling on Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis to immediately adopt them.
“Farm workers have been deemed essential, but our healthcare hasn’t,” Nely Rodriguez, a CIW organizer tells Food Tank. “We continue to harvest and provide food, but with very little protections.”
The Immokalee farming community is at high risk for COVID-19, Rodriguez says. Populated predominantly by immigrants and people of color who do not receive healthcare, half of the Immokalee community lives in poverty. Workers live in cramped and overcrowded housing, Rodriguez says, making it impossible to practice physical distancing or self-quarantine. Immokalee farm workers also commute to the fields in crowded buses, with 40–50 people per vehicle. Once they reach the farm, they work in close proximity without protective gear.
On April 1, CIW created a petition demanding that DeSantis provide testing, personal protective equipment, a field hospital, and economic relief. It has since collected more than 36,000 signatures. The Coalition also wrote an open letter, signed by 230 organizations, calling on DeSantis to implement necessary protection measures. The campaign has amassed press coverage from local and national news outlets.
Four weeks after CIW began their campaign, the Florida Department of Health announced that a mass testing site would open for Immokalee and Collier County residents on May 3. Residents who seek testing do not need to exhibit COVID-19 symptoms, nor disclose their immigration status.
While a testing site marks an achievement for the campaign, the governor has yet to address the remaining demands. Rodriguez continues to fear for the health and safety of Immokalee workers.
“If one of us gets sick while we’re trying to continue feeding the nation, then everyone else is going to get sick because we work in such tight quarters,” Rodriguez tells Food Tank.
It is almost inevitable that some Immokalee farm workers will get sick, Rodriguez says. And when they do, the closest hospital is located an hour away from the fields, and many workers are unable to access it due to transportation restrictions. CIW hopes that DeSantis will construct a hospital in the city of Immokalee, where farm workers can receive proper treatment and space to self-quarantine in the case of illness.
“There is no alternative space where workers can recover,” Rodriguez says.
While CIW waits for additional government support, the Coalition is taking matters in their own hands. CIW started a fundraiser to create and distribute masks to help Immokalee farm workers prevent transmission of the virus. Using donations, CIW’s women’s group hand-sewed and provided over 600 masks to workers. Organizers also partnered with the Fair Food Program to educate workers on ways to stay safe during the pandemic.
But Rodriguez does not think their individual efforts are enough. Florida’s tomato-picking industry was once inundated by cases of modern-day slavery and human rights abuses. It was not until CIW-led campaigns like the Campaign for Fair Food and Anti-Slavery Campaign that labor conditions improved. Acknowledging this history, Rodriguez highlights the importance of structural support.
“Farm workers for generations have been lacking attention from the state and the country for delivering adequate protections, so it’s not something new,” Rodriguez says. “But in a moment of crisis like this, it’s urgent for state officials to provide healthcare to workers who ensure that the nation has food on their plate. There will be a food crisis if nobody is working.”
Despite farm workers’ concerns about the spread of COVID-19, Gov. DeSantis is beginning to re-open the economy. Rodriguez believes this is dangerous for communities like Immokalee.
“Instead of taking precautions, what we’ve seen is conversations on re-opening when there are so many vulnerable communities that do not have adequate protection and have not been able to stay at home,” Rodriguez tells Food Tank.
But Immokalee workers are receiving an outpouring of support from their community. CIW is working with the fire department and Lipman farms to provide handwashing stations for workers, Rodriguez says. A local Immokalee clinic, separate from the testing site, is also testing workers with symptoms, Rodriguez says.
As Immokalee workers continue to fight for basic protections, Rodriguez urges supporters to donate to CIW’s COVID-19 fund, call DeSantis on behalf of Immokalee farmworkers, and share information across social media.
“The eyes of Florida are on DeSantis to protect the health and safety of the state’s farmworker communities,” Rodriguez says.
Editor’s note: The interview was translated from Spanish to English by Coalition of Immokalee Workers communication coordinator Yaissy Solis.