Agricultural migrant workers during pandemic capitalism

There has been an ongoing shortage in labor for agriculture and adjacent industries, such as food processing, tourism and hospitality. All of these industries have a dependence on the labor of seasonal migrant workers. This issue was already trending in 2019 before the outbreak of Covid-19 but has been exacerbated by the pandemic. In a report by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics it was cited that the employment of agricultural workers is only expected to increase by 1% over the next decade. This is slower than the average for all other industries.

First, we should give a clarification on what the H-2 visas are, and their significance in capitalism in the United States. The origins of the current H2 visa program -for migrant labor can be found with the first bracero program. The capitalist who controlled the agricultural Industry had a demand for labor due to labor shortages caused by the first period of generalized war, or the first world war.

This first program was known as the ‘First Bracero’ period; it ended with the onset of the great depression, which was when the post war cycle for profitable accumulation came to end.

This program underwent many reforms,  but increases in the worker’s protections didn’t mean much when faced by the needs of capital to maximize profits, through the increased production and realization of surplus value. In the case of agriculture this is through extracting surplus – value in it’s absolute form.

The basis for the modern program is the 1986 Immigrantion Reform Control Act, this made a separation between visas that the capitalist who control the agricultural Industry can use to recruit workers, ones for the capitalist who control the non agricultural Industry can use to recruit labor. Originally the program was called the H -1A (non agricultural ) and H -2A (agricultural) visas. The ones today are the H2 – A (agricultural and no cap) and H2 – B (non agricultural and with a cap)

One of the factors that has been causing difficulties in securing labor has been the decline of the rural population. This has led agricultural lobbies and farm unions to call for immigration reforms that would ease restrictions on recruiting and hiring H2 – A migrant workers. These are the capitalists who would benefit the greatest from such reforms; other sections would be those who control the tech industry. They may support loosening restrictions for immigration but no entity within capitalism will support the total dissolution of borders and immigrant control. This is why it’s important to expose the links between capitalism and the brutal system of borders and immigration control. Capitalists use the system of national borders to regulate the labor market. The progressive section of capitalist support “diversity” – only to the extent that it benefits the state and capitalist accumulation, while they also support the brutal system of borders to regulate the labor market and bolster national sentiment in order to bond workers with their exploiters in a sense of national togetherness.

There isn’t a cap for how many can be recruited on H2 – A visas, and in 2021 there has already been a 33% increase in cap for H2 – B visas increasing the amount by 20,000.  The census data released in early August 2021 shows that most of the population gains in rural areas have been comprised of workers from Latin America. Most are migrant workers who are on H2 – A and H2 – B visas.

The other cause for the slow growth in agricultural workers is the industry’s inability to compete for labor – power. Most agribusinesses are finding themselves outcompeted for labor by the capitalists who run the logistics and warehouse industries. Along with the growing backlog for guestwork programs caused by emissaries being shut down on account of covid 19, also the long term effects of former president Trump’s increased restrictions on immigration as apart of his administration’s attempt to reorient USA capital, into a protectionist direction before the pandemic and a near complete ban during the early months of the pandemic, all while increasing the Border Patrol’s ICE’s repression against “illegal” immigrants, this entails increasing the amount of encounters “legal” immigrants have with the agency as well. These agencies help capital secure a more exploitable workforce under constant fear of violence.

The H2-A visa is used by the capitalists who run the agricultural industry to employ migrant labor on a seasonal basis. The H2-A visa again has no cap, and unlike the H2 – A visa the H2 – B visa is mainly used to employ workers for food processing plants, forestry, also some seasonal hospitality and custodial positions.

Both the H2-A and H2-B visas regulate that the migrant workers can only sell their labor-power to a single employer (which is oftentimes a staffing agency), with a demand for seasonal migrant labor. Many H2-A visa recipients are hired by ‘Farm Labor Contractors’ (FLMs); this allows the bourgeoisie to bypass the minimum wage, housing, transportation, anti-discrimination and meal/kitchen regulations that come with the visa program. 

Around 73% of surveyed participants of the guest work program said that they were either unreimbursed or partially reimbursed for travel expenses, also a substantial portion stated that they were charged substantial recruitment fees by employers. This means many were placed into debt before starting their jobs, which correlates to increased abuses, thefts and lack of freedom. Many had to put their personal property up for collateral to secure said loans, on top of their families expecting remittance. Quitting isn’t an option for many no matter how bad the working and living conditions are.

Currently H2 wages must either be equal to the current local prevailing wages, state minimum wage or whatever is agreed upon. Most surveyed participants of the guest work program cite substantially greater wages than what’s prevailing where they’re from as the main reason for participating in the program. However, the CDM receives the most legal complaints about wage violations than any other single legal issue. Wage violations took on a variety of forms, mainly fraud and purposefully making the process misleading, 43% of surveyed workers stated that their wages were less than what was promised in the recruitment process, many netted below legal minimum wage after illegal kickbacks.  Also 23% of surveyed workers reported that they had to pay for their own equipment (PPE and Hand tools) out of their wages, 7% had to pay for their own housing which is prohibited and 6% had to pay for transportation to the worksite from their housing along with illegal kickbacks which brings wages well below federal minimum wage, some reported that they netted around $1.25 an hour.

Since as a whole the agricultural industry generates a low profit, the wages of agricultural workers also remain low. As a result of that there is less of a demand for labor-power in comparison to other industries such as logistics. Since the bourgeoisie cannot be as competitive in the purchase of labor-power in agriculture, they must resort to extracting labor-power in its absolute form – through low wages, a longer work week, and offering no benefits or insurance through employment. This is irreversible and can’t be reformed because the capitalist mode of production is based on a fundamental law; the production of surplus value and the realization of profits. This unequal relationship between capital and labor involves extorting the maximum amount of profit possible. The expanded reproduction of capital in this instance is based on increasing the amount of absolute surplus – value that’s being produced by workers and appropriated by the capitalist. In this sort of accumulation of surplus – value the organic capital composition doesn’t grow at a significant pace.

Impact of Covid

The already miserable situation for agricultural workers in the United States, as well as across North America in places such as Canada and Mexico, has been aggravated further with the onset of the Covid pandemic. Whereas a large number of workers in Western countries or the “metropoles” of capitalism were able to (for a month or so at least) work from home at the height of social distancing, there were likewise a large number of workers deemed essential to the continued functioning of capitalist society. Among these were workers in healthcare, food services and, critically for this piece, workers in agriculture. Neither capitalism nor any society could function without the production of food, and capitalism understood that if it did not keep agricultural workers working away in the fields and processing plants, then social breakdowns and crises even larger than what we saw in 2020 would arise.

Due to this necessity, farms and agricultural/food processing plants remained much more open during the pandemic, including the earliest months of March-July of 2020 when the danger of the virus seemed even greater than what we now know it is, with an ensuing visible impact on the health and lives of agricultural workers.

In general, cases and deaths among agricultural workers match those of the general population. However, counties containing large amounts of agricultural workers have higher Covid cases and deaths on average than other US counties. JL Lusk and Ranveer Chandra point out in their comprehensive case-study of the impact of Covid in agricultural workers in the US that “a 1% increase in the number of hired agricultural workers in a county is associated with a 0.04% increase in the number of COVID-19 cases per person and 0.07% increase in deaths per person”. Applied across the United States, where some counties hold much higher amounts of agricultural workers than others, this results in huge disparities in cases and deaths.

Before the pandemic, the conditions of agricultural workers, especially in the processing plants, were already poor, cramped, and unsanitary. These conditions were magnified by the pandemic as frequent outbreaks of Covid in plants and farms across the country attracted media attention, with the fear that these outbreaks could contaminate the foot supply. There was only hypocritical concern for the workers in the bourgeois press, if they mentioned them much at all.

In terms of the concrete impact of cases and deaths on agricultural workers, this is what Lusk and Chandra had to say in April of 2021:

“In the 13 month period since the start of the pandemic (from March 1, 2020 to March 31, 2021), the estimated cumulative number of COVID-19 cases (deaths) was 329,031 (6,166) among agricultural producers, 170,137 (2,969) among hired agricultural workers, 202,902 (3,812) among unpaid agricultural workers, and 27,223 (459) among migrant agricultural workers. The cases amount to 9.55%, 9.31%, 9.39%, and 9.01% of all U.S. agricultural producers, hired workers, unpaid workers, and migrant workers, respectively.”

With the deaths of these agricultural workers also comes increased economic hardship for the families of the dead. The death of one of these workers signifies the loss of one of the breadwinners, making it even more difficult to pay rent and afford the basic necessities of life. The fact that many of these workers are undocumented migrants compounds this issue as they likely don’t have life insurance (or health insurance for that matter), meaning that families have to deal with the tragic loss of a loved one at the same time as they scramble to figure out how they are going to put food on the table and remain in their place of residence. In addition, specifically with the deaths of undocumented agricultural workers comes the end of the remesas that they frequently send back to their families in their home countries, often in Latin America, more specifically Mexico and Central Ameria. These remesas/payments are often lifelines for their families at home, and is often the motivating factor for the migrant coming to the United States in the first place. This ends up producing the same effect, where the families at home are left to both mourn and grieve as well as try to find a new source of income to stay alive.

It is also perhaps the case that many of the cases and even some of the deaths among the agricultural workers, especially undocumented migrant workers, went uncounted due to their precarious immigration/legal status. Yet even discarding that possibility, capitalism’s toll on agricultural workers in just the United States during Covid is clear. Neglect and demands to continue production on the part of the class of bosses has necessarily lead to deaths for almost 13.5k (13,406) agricultural workers over the course of the past year in the US. These deaths could have been prevented had adequate safety equipment and standards been brought in and implemented on the part of the workers themselves, at the same time ensuring a stable food supply, but the reality is that under capitalism profits are prioritized over lives and the good of humanity and this leads to scenarios like the one that we see here. It is also an undeniable fact that by being in the working class and therefore by being compelled to sell one’s labor-power in order to survive, these agricultural workers had no other choice but to expose themselves to the virus and potential deaths in order to maintain an income for themselves and their families. Capitalism is a sequence of tragedies and horror stories.

In Canada, while it appears that agricultural workers and in particular migrant agricultural workers (or TMAWs, temporary migrant agricultural workers as they are referred to in Canada) have experienced less deaths from Covid over the last year and a half, the situation has nevertheless been far from rosy. Because of the fact that many of the agricultural workers in Canada are seasonal, this meant that there was a backlog of migrants who were unable to enter Canada for work because of the pandemic’s restrictions on travel. Canadian companies were then confronted with a labor shortage which they compensated for by increasing the workloads for the workers themselves, as well as increasing hours. According to Vivianne Landry and others in their comprehensive study on the pandemic’s effect on Canadian agricultural migrant workers, many TMAWs in Canada were “working upwards from 15 h a day, seven days a week, to make up for workers who would be unable to travel”.

At the same time as the bosses were demanding huge increases in production and workload on the part of the workers, they withheld overtime and often engaged in gross wage-theft. It was reported in Canada that $57,369.46 was stolen from these migrant workers, either through unpaid wages or deductions, just in the period from March-June of 2020. Because of the precarious situation of many of these workers owing to their immigration status, making it difficult and dangerous to report such crimes, the real number for wage theft is likely higher.

The increased demands for productivity and longer hours against agricultural workers in Canada has almost certainly led to greater incidences of injuries and work fatalities. We do not yet have possession of the current numbers for work injuries and deaths in the Canadian agricultural industry. However, what we do already know is that agriculture itself has consistently been one of the most dangerous industries for workers in Canada. Between 1990 and 2000, there were 1256 work-related deaths and around 15,000 work-related injuries for Canadian agricultural workers. The constant exposure to animal-borne diseases, dangerous chemicals and equipment, the lack of safety and protective equipment and facilities, the long hours, and the fear (largely due to their immigration status, although also because of the fear of missing out on pay) of reporting sickness and injuries to the bosses or authorities take their toll on the workers. For this last point, it is estimated that only about 10% of accidents at work which lead to injuries were reported to the Worker’s Compensation Board. What we can infer is that the increased productivity demands during the pandemic greatly increased the death and injury toll. These workers would agree, as many have testified to “suffering increased strains, injuries and sickness due to increased pace of work”.

In the context of both these work-related injuries and Covid, migrant agricultural workers in Canada have been largely excluded from receiving healthcare. Many lack health cards, have only limited English capabilities and, in combination with their precarious work and immigration status, all of these factors conspire to ensure that migrant agricultural workers remain severely disadvantaged in the realm of healthcare. In fact, one study of almost “600 TMAWs revealed that 93% of them did not know how to make a workers’ compensation claim, that 92% did not know how to fill out hospital forms and that 85% of them did not know how to make a health insurance claim”. Covid also exacerbated the health crisis for agricultural workers in general because hospitals in Canada were much less capable at responding to non-Covid patients due to the added difficulty of caring for Covid patients in hospitals.

It is well-known that agricultural workers, especially migrants, have had to deal with subpar housing and living conditions. Their quarters are often cramped and overcrowded, with poor insulation, lack of access to proper sanitation facilities, drinking water, and exposure to dangerous agrochemicals. The Migrant Worker Health Project reports the following example of poor housing during Covid for Canadian TMAWs:

“In Southern Ontario, MAWs entering mandatory isolation at a large fruit farm reached out to local advocates and expressed concern over their shared kitchen and bathroom spaces. Housed in a trailer, each worker was provided with their own bedroom for the isolation period, but after the isolation period workers were told they would be housed two or three to a room. All workers living in the trailer share one small kitchen and one bathroom. They were not provided with adequate sanitation supplies to regularly disinfect shared surfaces, and furthermore, they have been instructed to stay in their housing at all times, even after the 14-day quarantine. These workers are concerned that such crowded and inadequate living conditions will place them at risk for COVID-19 throughout the season.”

This only helps further illustrate the wretched conditions that agricultural workers in Canada, particularly the migrants, are forced to endure just to survive. And with the added variable of the pandemic, it was practically impossible for any of these workers to quarantine themselves or social distance. Capital instead dictated that these workers put their lives on the line for profit, considering it an acceptable price that some may die. It is also worth noting that TMAWs that participate in the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program are required to live in employer-provided housing, a factor which makes it so that workers live in the shoddiest living arrangements imaginable, as the miserly bosses decline to spend their precious profits on anything that could properly be called a home. An additional element of exploitation is also present as the employers may take 7-10% of the workers’ total wages and use that to cover the housing costs. The worker receives less so that the boss can pay for less.

All agricultural workers in Canada experienced rises in hours and productivity demands, as well as wage-theft and sometimes reductions in salaries by the bosses to cover their losses with the onset of Covid. This is a common feature among these workers of this industry which binds them together and provides the basis for a unified struggle against exploitation. Yet it must also be said that the ease with which the capitalists were able to carry out their agenda of misery and exploitation was facilitated by the fact that migrant agricultural workers are an especially vulnerable section of our class to being exploited. Migrant workers in Canada are overall subject to a harsh regime of exploitation; the vast majority of the labor laws which apply to Canadian citizens don’t apply to migrant workers in the country. This means that basic protections that the working class has historically struggled for, such as the minimum wage, breaks and days off, overtime, or collective bargaining, are at best fuzzy and at worst non-existent for Canadian migrant workers. The regime of exploitation has an added blanket of domination and control over the TMAWs. Because of the fact that the program stipulates that workers be tied to one employer, the employer in question then has enormous power over the workers because they wield in their hands the ability to fire the workers and cause them to be deported back to their home country. The bosses use this weapon against the workers to extract total control over their lives and the workload that they are given and forced to carry out. The liberal bourgeoisie would love to point to the few existing regulations in place to supposedly curb the power of the bosses as proof that these workers have the opportunity to get justice if they simply report the abuses to the authorities. But the truth is that language, money, and time barriers, in addition to a host of other factors, make any plan to report abuse to the authorities both futile and dangerous.

In Mexico, around 6.5 million people, or just above 5% of the country’s population of 127.6 million, are “engaged in agricultural work”. As in the United States and Canada, these agricultural workers have likewise seen a significant reduction in their living conditions over the course of the Covid pandemic with the capitalist offensive waged against workers to resuscitate profit rates.

In a country like Mexico, in the periphery of capitalism and subject to domination by the larger imperialist powers such as the United States among others, the depravity and poverty of capitalism is on full display. If workers in the US, Canada, Europe and other locations in the metropoles of capitalism are able to enjoy some modicum of security in their work and material fulfillment in their lives (which in both cases is not the reality), then in Mexico and other nations of capitalism’s periphery the workers have nothing. This is demonstrated by the fact that before the pandemic in 2018, it was reported that hired workers in the agriculture industry in Mexico received, on average, 3200 pesos a month, equivalent to around $165 USD in November 2019. In addition to the poor salaries of Mexican agricultural workers, they face a high degree of precarity in their work situations. According to the International Labor Organization, in 2019 85.7% of the workers in the agricultural sector were employed informally. This number should not be surprising, given that such a large part of the farm worker, or jornalero population in Mexico is made up of internal migrants, or of migrants from Central American countries like Guatemala and Honduras. These migrants move from farm to farm across Mexico, as the landless workers must decide: “migrar o morir” (migrate or die).

Yet the importance of the irregularity of the work of Mexican agricultural workers when it comes to Covid is that this essentially restricts them from seeking any sort of compensation or protection for when they get sick. During Covid, the Mexican government has factored Covid into its sick leave payments for workers, which would cover the wages for the duration that a worker is infected with Covid. Yet this is restricted to Mexicans enrolled in social security, of which only 6 in 10 are enrolled. What this means is that these jornaleros employed informally in the agricultural sector, moving from farm to farm, are excluded from receiving any sort of compensation for when they get sick with Covid. The results of this are obvious. Workers are unlikely to report that they have become sick even with Covid and continue working until they can’t anymore. Working long hours to support themselves and their families, they do not have the luxury of taking unpaid days off to take care of themselves, even if they are sick with Covid, risking their own lives in the process. Perhaps the most egregious example of this came with the death of “Silvestre” in May of 2020. An agricultural worker in Sinaloa, Silvestre was taking the bus back to the farm that he worked at when he died from Covid on the bus ride. Instead of seeking help, the precarious and impoverished situation of the jornaleros in Mexico caused Silvestre to literally work himself to death even as Covid overtook him.

This has been a prime spreader of Covid among Mexican agricultural workers, but another factor is the housing situation for these workers. The Red Nacional de Jornaleros y Jornaleras Agrícolas reports how it is common for jornaleros to live in scenes reminiscent of Engels’ 1845 book on the working class in England, without basic hygienic conditions, ventilation, or access to clean drinking water. The REJJA states that agricultural workers “se encuentran en condiciones de hacinamiento y es frecuente la presencia de plagas” (find themselves in conditions of overcrowding and the presence of pests is frequent). The prison-like conditions that the jornaleros work in engenders the fast and easy spread of the virus. There are endless reports of these workers catching and getting either severely sick or dying from the virus, and the living conditions that a system which prioritizes profit over life has put them in is certainly to blame.

In addition to the aforementioned problems that Mexican agricultural workers face in taking days off due to Covid, the very act of seeking healthcare itself is a hurdle and has been long before Covid. Employers are often stingy in granting permissions to go to hospitals, and these hospitals themselves are often extremely far-removed from the farm sites. If they are sick and require medical attention, workers have to not only take time off work from being sick, but must pay for transportation, and potentially spend even more unpaid time away at a far-away hospital. As hospitals have become overwhelmed during Covid, the potential to even receive medical attention has been diminished yet further.

In the midst of all of this, the Indigenous populations within the jornalero population have proven especially vulnerable, both to the economic oppression and exploitation that workers deal with, but also with Covid and of course their unique racial oppression. A very high proportion of the jornaleros are Indigenous, and 24% speak an Indigenous language, three-times higher than the rate nationally. It was this section of the population that was hardest hit especially at the beginning of Covid but also generally through the duration of it, as the remesas sent by migrant family members in the United States or Canada dried up. This was a factor in causing a spike in internal migrations by these Indigenous families, as landless and without work, they went in search of any way to secure an income and their own survival. In assessing the vulnerabilities of these Indigenous communities to the pandemic, the National Autonomous University of Mexico published a study and concluded that “en términos socioeconómicos, son los municipios con menor capacidad de resistencia, y por consecuencia, menor capacidad de resiliencia” (in socioeconomic terms, [Indigenous municipalities] are the municipalities with the lowest capacity for resistance, and as a consequence, the lowest capacity for resilience). The degraded conditions in terms of health and economics for the Indigenous jornaleros in Mexico has resulted in large Covid deaths and uncountable cases of sickness, in a country where it is estimated that more than 600,000 have died of Covid as of May 2021. The final insult is added to their injury as the Indigenous communities face racial abuse and oppression from bosses that are disproportionately white compared to the general population, and especially compared to the population of jornaleros. They are denigrated for their language, their darker skin, and their traditions. Covid has only further added to this abuse as now the rich bosses have the image of the ‘poor, disease-ridden masses’ in their minds.

There’s no reformist solution for the blight of migrant workers since the capitalist system demands constant growth, this valorization of capital is only obtainable through constantly increasing the amount of surplus value, or valorizable capital workers produce. The sections of the capitalists who have the greatest demand for migrant workers control the Industries that generate lower rates of profit, they also may only demand labor power to exploit on a seasonal basis, in these Industries the extended reproduction of capital is only possible through extracting surplus value in its absolute form. However all factions of the bourgeoisie support the nation-state, the brutal system of borders and sorting people out based on their legal membership to different national compacts. The proletariat, which is a class that enjoys a double “freedom”, freedom from production and the freedom from ownership, can only transform from a class in capitalism which is not fully conscious of the necessity to overthrow the political domination of bourgeoisie; to transform social relations to production doing away with the exploitation of the working class to a class for itself through their own struggles that must stay rooted on class terrain. A minority of the class will retain this revolutionary communist consciousness even in periods where there’s no open class struggle. They can only remain united in a political organization, which is an expression of this consciousness and based on the communist program,  that’s been collectively clarified by reflecting on the past struggles of the class. The role of the communist political organization is to give direction to the worker’s struggle, which is to support the demands that the workers movement makes that would progress the struggle forward. This organization must be international, internationalist, and revolutionary, and it is this task, the construction of the future world party of the proletariat, that we in 1919, as members of the ICT in the United States and Canada, have set out to fulfill.

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