Oregon’s farmworkers, 98 percent of whom are immigrants from Mexico and Central America, have made the state a lead producer of mint, blueberries, Christmas trees, grass seed, and hops, among other crops.
In 2015, an estimated 46,000 laborers helped farmers produce $5.7 billion in goods.
“We’re able to sustain ourselves because of the hard work of farmworkers,” Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson said Wednesday as county employees gathered to honor National Farmworker Awareness Week and the birthday of César Chávez, an advocate for farmworker rights and founder of the United Farm Workers of America.
During her time in the state legislature, Vega Pederson fought to include agricultural laborers in the state’s minimum wage laws, overhauled last year in SB 1532, and for paid sick leave for all workers including agricultural workers the year before in SB 454.
“Farmworkers deserve just living and working conditions and an end to unfair treatment under the law,” she said. “Still, there is work to be done.”
While the average United States resident brings home $32,000 a year, the average farmworker earns between $5,000 and $7,500, according to census data. Fieldhands without a legal work permit earned half that amount, according the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And half of all farmworkers lack such documentation.
While United States citizens live, on average, well into their 70s, the average farmworker will die before age 50. It could be the pesticides; farmworkers suffer higher rates of toxic chemical injuries than any other worker in the United States. It could be unfortunate accidents; workers in agriculture suffer higher rates of accidental death than any other profession. It could be the higher rates of parasitic infections, malnutrition, lead poisoning, respiratory illnesses, heat stress, influenza, pneumonia, cancer or miscarriage.
“We eat cheap. We think we eat cheap,” said Ramón Ramírez, cofounder of Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste (PCUN). “Farmworkers are literally paying a price for putting food on the American table.”
He decried the February detention of 11 laborers in Woodburn by federal immigration authorities as a failure to focus enforcement on violent offenders who risk public safety. Instead, he said, Immigration and Customs Enforcement has begun a wholesale sweep of undocumented immigrants including those with protection from deportation under President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.
“The very fabric of our communities is coming apart,” he said. “I get calls from parents asking if they should send their kids to school. Elderly people don’t want to go outside. Businesses are shutting down.” And he said he fears people scheduled to appear at state courthouses are more likely to skip out because of a fear immigration will be there waiting.
Ramírez applauded the Board of Commissioners for investing $100,000 in immigration legal services and for advocating that courthouses be added to a list of sensitive locations where immigration agents agree to avoid.
Ramírez denounced rhetoric that immigrant workers are taking jobs from people born in the United States. “Our government should be proud that immigrants are coming across the border, dying to get here to work these jobs, knowing they are not spending one cent in the human development of these workers,” he said.
Ramírez turned his attention to the crowded board room, where platters of chicken and peppers, corn tortillas, and salsas awaited the celebration guests.
“Did we ever think about where that food came from?,” he asked. “Have we thanked a farmworker, said ‘Thank you for the service; you provide to me and my family?’”