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Tyler: More needs to be done to help migrant farmworkers

“It’s ironic that those who till the soil, cultivate and harvest the fruits, vegetables, and other foods that fill your tables with abundance have nothing left for themselves.”

— Cesar Chavez.

Texas farmworkers live in shadows. Do you ever even think about how the fruits and vegetables in your lunch salad made it to your plate? Hand picked harvests are indispensable to our daily nourishment needs. Though we might not think about them much, farmworkers are a vital component to agriculture, which has a $115 billion economic impact on Texas. More than picking fruits and vegetables, agricultural workers manage the livestock, gin the cotton and weed the sorghum. They are shrimpers, oystermen, food processors, poultry handlers and crop haulers.

How many farmworkers live in Texas? Where do Texas farmworkers work? What are their wages and in in what conditions do they live?

Some studies shed some light — Department of Labor’s National Agriculture Workers Survey, USDA’s Economic Research Service provide farm labor updates, publishes Profile of Hired Farmworkers. A now dated enumeration study was conducted for the U.S. Health and Human Services, and the state contracted a study of housing for farmworkers in rural counties in 2012. None of studies tell the full story. Often the statistics need interpretation and explanation. We need better information about trends, the labor force, where do the laborers live, and what do farmworkers need.

Texas has more farmworkers than all other states except California. Throughout the nation, the farmworker population is largely Hispanic, poorly paid, works seasonally, lives in poor and overcrowded housing, and is vulnerable to poor health. And that poor health could easily spread. Without improvements, “farmworker housing is a detriment to public health in the U.S.,” according to the American Public Health Association.

What is the work like? What are the wages? How long do they work at any particular job and how many jobs in what locations can a farmworker find during any particular year? Where do farmworkers live while working away from home? Where do farmworkers live in the homebase, if that differs from the work location?

A 2012 study found that thousands of farmworkers, in fact 93 percent of farmworkers, cannot access affordable housing in the state’s rural communities with a sizable number of agricultural workers. A review of employer-provided housing licensed for migrant workers and federally-funded homes reserved for farmworkers shows a scant 1,392 units across the entire state.

We need to better understand the labor contributions this population offers and the economic and housing issues farmworkers face. Perhaps with better understanding we can craft recommendations to improve Texas’ agriculture and economic conditions. But better yet, we need to act.

We know farmworkers, despite back breaking work, live in poverty. We know they cannot afford adequate safe housing. More than studies, we need to just chip in and help. We need a few resources, we need a hammer and a bit of muscle power, and we need the will to go get it done.

We urge more research, more resources and more just getting it done. If, for example, consumers paid just pennies more for our fruit and vegetables, and if those pennies would go towards what farmworkers earn, they would be able to afford better housing.

Then maybe we can finally eat our salads guilt free — but not until then.

Tyler is housing services director at Motivation Education & Training Inc., Texas-based non-profit that provides academic and vocational training to migrant and seasonal farmworkers.

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