Opinion: Protecting Those Who Feed Us

Workers on a poultry processing line in May 2020. Tyson Foods photo via Nevada Current.

If you eat, you should care about farm workers. Skyrocketing numbers of COVID-19 cases at meatpacking facilities and poultry processing plants have routinely left consumers facing empty shelves at the grocery store over the past year, and faster line speed rules have made headlines for putting both workers’ safety and food safety at risk. Safety standards for food and farm workers mirror safety standards for the food we eat. And we must do better.

For too long, the essential workers in Maryland’s agricultural sector have labored under substandard conditions, lacking the critical workplace protections and benefits afforded workers in other industries.

When a few large companies control our food system, cracks in the system appear, often exacerbating existing racial and socioeconomic divides. Corporate consolidation in our food system has given a few companies too much power to exploit food and farm workers.

The enduring pandemic has revealed the essential and perilous role that those in our food system have to play in putting food on the table. Food and farm workers are the backbone of Maryland’s agricultural industry. They deserve to be treated as the essential workers they are.

Despite their essential labor, Maryland’s food and farm workers have historically been kept out of the state’s worker protection legislation. Legal protections commonplace in other industries from health care to paid sick leave do not exist for most agricultural workers. Instead of legally enforceable standards for workplace protection, food and farm workers are subject to the whims of their corporate employers.

The result? Not great.

Food and farm workers are daily exposed to occupational hazards including pesticide application, inadequate PPE, and substandard living and working conditions. Lacking basic benefits like paid sick leave and health care, and often living in employer-provided housing, these workers need legislative action to ensure adequate protections where employer provisions do not suffice. Without legal protections, 2020 saw 620 cases of COVID-19 at poultry processing plants in Maryland and six deaths, many of which could have been prevented.

Many of Maryland’s farm workers are migrant workers or recent immigrants working to build a better life for their families. Migrant workers lack the political representation of laborers in other industries, risking employer retaliation that could cost them not only their job but also their home and residential status. Food and farm workers, often people of color, face racial and social injustices in the workplace in addition to inadequate legally enforceable workplace protections. It is critical that those of us with a voice to influence our legislature do so on their behalf.

Last year, 100 groups urged Gov. Larry Hogan to protect these essential workers. This year, groups like Food & Water Watch are working with the Marylanders for Food and Farm Worker Protection Coalition to support vital worker protection legislation such as the Maryland Essential Workers’ Protection Act and ensure that it provides safeguards for food and farm workers. As worker protection bills advance through Annapolis, we must make certain that those who feed us get the essential protections they deserve, from suitable housing to paid sick leave, all enforceable with the full strength of the law.

Maryland must stand with those who feed us.

— LILY HAWKINS

The writer is the Maryland organizer for Food & Water Watch, mobilizing regular people to build political power to move bold and uncompromised solutions to the most pressing food, water and climate problems of our time. Food & Water Watch successfully banned fracking in Maryland, as well as banned the use of arsenic in chicken feed used in the state. Today, Hawkins works to ensure a sustainable and just food system and pass renewable energy commitments that phase out fossil fuels in Maryland.