Many of the workers across the country are working elbow to elbow six days a week, eight hours a day. For them, social distancing in the workplace is but a dream.
I’ve spent the past few months interviewing essential workers in the southern United States, primarily in Arkansas, who are instrumental to feeding this country.
They hail from Mexico, El Salvador, Myanmar, the Marshall Islands and beyond. Workers I spoke with, many undocumented, told me of fleeing the depredations of climate change, genocide and war to come to the US, where they pick tomatoes, onions, lettuce and kill the hogs and chickens that will later grace Americans’ tables.
They spend their days pulling weeds from among rows of fields of rice, putting frozen chicken breasts in line so that a machine can cut them into chicken nuggets, and washing blood from the feet of freshly killed chickens.
In an executive order signed in April, President Donald Trump deemed the workers, mostly immigrants and many undocumented, supplying our food to be essential, but he has left Covid-19 safety measures in the hands of companies, some of which have resisted transparency on issues as basic as informing workers of the number of Covid-19 infections at their work site.
Rather than trusting companies to take voluntary guidance from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), Trump should mandate that companies comply with specific Covid-19 safety measures, which the Department of Labor is authorized to do on an emergency basis. As we have seen, when safety standards aren’t enforced, essential workers die.
The author of this Op-Ed is Alice Driver, a freelance journalist whose work focuses on migration, human rights and gender equality. She is based in Mexico City.