“We cannot be complacent with the exploitation of these vulnerable workers.”
She was sold to a man when she was 15 years old, had a baby and eventually was rescued. She was Guadalupe Martinez Rios, my grandmother.
After her ordeal, she had four more children with my grandfather and worked in a factory and as a servant for a French family in Mexico City. She died from leukemia. The life of my mother, like her mother before her, was harsh. For breakfast, it was café negro (black coffee) and, if she was lucky, a piece of bread. My mother escaped poverty thanks to her love for education – she became a teacher and years later, one of the few trauma-orthopedic female surgeons in Mexico City. Known as la doctora Rios, my mom’s education did not protect her from the chronic stress of working in a dominant male environment, where women were devalued. She died from septic shock in a hospital in Mexico City a week after my son was born. Amidst the sorrow of losing her, my son brought hope and strength back into my life so that in 2018, I defended my dissertation on the mental health of labor trafficking survivors.
Shortly after my defense, I read investigations conducted by the U.S. Department of Labor against 35 agricultural employers in five Michigan counties for violating migrant housing and child labor laws. The Department of Labor found that children under the age of 12, including one 6-year-old, were picking blueberries in the fields. Their stories resonated with me perhaps in part because they shared elements of my mom’s and grandmother’s harsh – and sometimes exploitative – working conditions.
As seen in my grandmother and mother, people’s gender, ethnic, racial and economic positions intertwine with precarious employment and exploitative working conditions. Precarious jobs often feed from the social vulnerability of the workers, potentially leading to exploitative working conditions – with labor trafficking as the most extreme form. This dangerous mix is harmful to people’s health, demotes human rights and impacts all of us.
If you add climate change’s effects on agricultural production – for example, extreme temperature and precipitation can destroy crops – you’ll find agricultural workers already working in precarious conditions even more vulnerable: not only they are exposed to even hotter temperatures, but they are pressured to work faster to account for production losses. As expressed by a female farmworker that I interviewed in southwest Michigan, “there are many hours of bending [when working picking cucumbers]. Many of us have pain in the waist and legs. Sometimes the heat is intolerant. [I got] headaches when the heat is strong and we are there, working hard.”
However, as a society we can change this by demanding enforcement of fair and safe working conditions for farmworkers. Integrating the enforcement of worker’s rights and protections with climate change in mind will further social and environmental justice for all.