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Essential but exposed: US farm laborers lack virus protection

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Los Angeles (AFP)

Working side-by-side without gloves or masks, packed into dormitories at night -- farm laborers who harvest the crops that feed the United States are considered essential workers, yet the conditions in which they live and work make them especially susceptible to the coronavirus pandemic.

Around 2.4 million people work in fields across the United States -- the country with the most novel coronavirus cases globally.

Like doctors, nurses, firefighters and supermarket workers, they cannot stop during the crisis, which has forced three-quarters of the population to stay at home.

Even at the best of times these farmhands toil for long hours picking fruit and vegetables, exposed to the sun and frequently bent double.

It is a job that few Americans want to do -- at least half the workers are documented immigrants.

Even as demand on food supply chains spikes amid supermarket panic-buying, activists warn that many farm workers have received no protective equipment, or even new guidance or work protocols to help avoid infection.

Working for minimum wage, some are carted to the fields each morning in crowded trucks or buses from camps packed with 200 workers, or from small apartments where multiple families are housed together.

And because many are undocumented, access to health care is difficult, terror of the immigration police is a constant, and the type of unemployment benefits recently unveiled by President Donald Trump are not an option.

"It's commonplace for them to go to work when they have a fever, they have a cough, a runny nose -- many of the symptoms of COVID-19," said Erik Nicholson, national vice president of the United Farm Workers of America (UFW), the country's largest farm workers' union.

"Because the reality is, for some workers, if you don't work, you don't get paid. And if you don't get paid, you can't feed your family or pay the rent."

- 'The most vulnerable' -

As well as putting food on the table, agriculture is a major driver of the US economy. It generated more than five percent of national GDP in 2017.

California, dubbed "America's salad bowl," has the highest farm production of any US state. It is also one of the hardest hit by coronavirus, with nearly 7,000 cases and 150 deaths, according to the latest official statistics.

Farm laborers play a key part in keeping food supplies running through the coronavirus crisis, said Department of Agriculture California spokesman Steve Lyle.

"Food producers have been focused on enhanced worker safety measures from the very beginning of this crisis," bringing in "social distancing in fields and on production lines," he told AFP.

On Ellen Brokaw's fruit farms outside Los Angeles, changes brought in to protect workers include maintaining six feet distance at all times.

"The goal we all have is to keep our workers safe and keep them coming to work, unless they are ill or need to be home for childcare or because somebody else is ill," she told the Ventura County Star.

But not all farm owners are making these changes. Some 90 percent of farmhands said they had received no information about the virus, in a UFW social media consultation of 227 people.

With schools closed and no way to afford childcare, many have to leave young children home alone, for fear that missing a single day's work due to family emergency could mean losing their jobs.

"I think we are the most vulnerable and the least seen" in the pandemic, farmer Juan Guerrero told Univision.

Yet infection could prove disastrous not just for the individual workers, but for the farms themselves and the wider food supply, said David Still, professor at the California State University Agricultural Research Institute.

"If you're putting everybody in a bus bringing them over every morning ... and somebody is infected then there goes your workforce, very quickly," he said.

"Whether it's five, 10 or 20 or 30 percent of the workers not showing up for work, that's going to be a big problem. That's going to be a very big problem for our supply."

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