Undocumented Workers Need Climate Protections, Too

Undocumented Workers Need Climate Protections, Too
Illustration: Angelica Alzona

Ana Martínez has worked on a farm in Florida for nearly two decades. Her job is to cut pieces of bushes to use as fillings for flower bouquets. One Monday this past July, she knew something was wrong because she got a headache on the job.

“I never get headaches, but that morning I started to get one and my knees felt weak and I felt like throwing up,” said Martínez.

The problem was the heat. In the summer in Florida, temperatures often reach the triple digits in Fahrenheit, especially in the blazing sun. Martínez, who hails from western Mexico, works in the same fields where up to 200,000 migrant farmers toil in the Sunshine State’s sweltering sun. But she’s among the countless undocumented labourers who desperately need protection from the increasingly fierce heat wrought by climate change.

Last month, the Biden administration announced a list of long-overdue protections for workers from extreme heat — a move that labour and climate advocates praised. The biggest part of the statement was the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s promise to issue a new rule to ensure workers are kept safe from extreme heat.

The announcement specifically mentioned agricultural workers as needing protections, as they are some of the most vulnerable labourers to heat-related illness due to long hours outside. Federal data from 2008 showed that farmworkers are 20 times more likely to die from heat-related illnesses than the average U.S. worker. Between 1992 and 2017, more than 800 farmworkers died from heat exposure while more than 70,000 were seriously injured.

Florida is particularly impacted. The state has had the biggest increase in hospitalizations in the CDC’s Environmental Public Health Tracking Program between 1979 and 2013. Nearly 85% of agricultural laborers in the state have reported at least one symptom of heat illness, and 40% have reported three or more.

But the measures won’t be enough to protect workers like Martínez, because like 50% of the farm labour workforce, she is undocumented. Other industries that involve gruelling outdoor labour, such as construction and landscaping, also rely heavily on undocumented workers; an estimate from the Centre for American Progress found that nearly 1 in 5 landscaping workers and construction laborers are undocumented.

Martínez, who asked that we change her name to protect her identity, said she’s fortunate enough to have a relatively caring manager who provides water for workers and encourages them to take breaks. But other supervisors are more pushy, encouraging workers to work through the heat. Many also fear that leaving due to illness could compromise their future job prospects.

“Workers are scared of leaving in that situation because they think, what if [the manager] takes away their work or doesn’t give them work tomorrow or another day,” said Martínez.

At the farm Martínez works at, laborers are also paid not by the hour or day, but per piece of filling they clip from the bushes — “38 cents (A$0.51) per bunch,” she said. Some choose to work even when they feel ill because they need the money.

“I’m one of those people that always fights [with other farmworkers] and tells them, ‘your life is more important than making more bunches,’” she said.

If farms like this were required under federal law to provide regular access to shade and water on hot days, it could allow workers to do their jobs without risking their lives.

“Undocumented workers place themselves at a lot of risk if they try to either complain to their employer or go to OSHA,” Juley Fulcher, worker health and safety advocate at the nonprofit Public Citizen, said. “They could lose their jobs, if their families work there, their families could lose their jobs. They could be blacklisted from getting jobs anywhere else.”

In 2020, a group of Democratic lawmakers in both houses of Congress introduced the Asunción Valdivia Heat Illness and Fatality Prevention Act. The bill is named after Asunción Valdivia, a farmworker who tragically perished in California in 2004 after harvesting grapes for 10 hours straight in triple-digit heat. The measure would require all employers to provide shade, water, and breaks for all workers, yet the bill has not even been scheduled for a vote.

OSHA says that its new rule will focus on interventions and workplace inspections — including surprise inspections — for all days when the heat index exceeds 80 degrees Fahrenheit (27 degrees Celsius). Fulcher said community groups, like the Farmworker Association of Florida — which Martinez works with — are often able to serve as a “go-between” that can tip authorities off to when an unannounced inspection may be useful.

“They are able to bring OSHA’s attention to a problem without necessarily putting any individual worker at risk,” she said.

Martínez said that bigger changes than a few surprise inspections and water are needed to protect undocumented workers. Increasing farmworker pay and changing pay models are at the top of her list. Since she and many other farmworkers are paid for how much they pick, they are disincentivized to take breaks for water or shade since doing so would cut their wages. Per-piece payment also makes it possible to pay workers less than minimum wage. Between 2015 and 2016, the annual income for farmworkers’ families didn’t often exceed $US24,500 (A$32,830), meaning many lived below the poverty line.

“I think [they should] increase the wages of the work we do,” she said.

Ultimately, she also said that a pathway to citizenship is necessary. This could help ensure workers have all the protections that OSHA provides. Laborers in other fields, including disaster recovery, have faced similar dangerous work situations. Protections and citizenship are twin pathways to ensuring safer conditions.

According to a study released last year, the number of days with unsafe working conditions in counties where agriculture is a major part of the economy will rise from 21 per season to 39 per season by 2055. Without urgent measures to curb greenhouse gas emissions, the number of unsafe days could triple by the end of the century. The time to instate better protections for the agricultural workforce is now because the climate crisis will only make extreme heat worse.

“The horrible effects of the heat this past summer showed us that,” Fulcher said.

Jody Serano provided translations for this story.