Immigrant Workers and the Social Contract

The success or failure of any government is based on a simple concept. Can that government live up to the social contract that it has with its own people? Can it provide the services that ensure that its people are healthy, happy and safe?

The COVID-19 pandemic seems to have overturned this ages-old concept on its head. We are seeing local and state government stepping in to fill roles that would normally fall under the federal government’s mandate. Governors and mayors are engaging in foreign diplomacy to live up to their social contracts, while many corporations are scrambling to ensure that their employees are safe, healthy and productive.

Yet, having been an agriculture CEO and an immigrant myself, I am disappointed to say that one group of essential workers in America continues to fall through the cracks of any social contract – the tens of thousands of immigrants (legal, guest and undocumented) who work our fields, harvest our crops and process our food.

As I’ve written before, the American Farm Bureau Federation notes that “50-70 percent of farm laborers in the country today are unauthorized,” with the main reason being that few U.S. workers are willing to fill available farm labor jobs, making this work force, literally, an irreplaceable national strategic asset.

Instead of extending our own social contract to include them, we have put them on the front lines of the pandemic, asking them to work and therefore risk their health and potentially lives on our behalf. To further exacerbate the situation, beyond asking them to work, their circumstance adds further to their vulnerability.

For one, many of these workers, regardless of their status, live close to or below the poverty line. As a result, and because of the nature of their work, they are often cramped into tight quarters, living in overcrowded houses, dorms or trailers.

Furthermore, if any of them get sick, accessing proper health care is difficult due to their immigration status. Expecting them to self-quarantine if exposed to an infected worker, because they are hourly workers, is basically a fantasy. Most will suck it up and head to work. Given the lack of testing, if they have the virus, no one would know until it is too late. As evidenced, in the meat industry, once these workers are incapacitated there are few Americans lining up to replace them.

The result of all of this is an agricultural system that is at serious risk of collapsing at a time we can least afford it.

So, what can be done? Under normal circumstances, our government should extend the wider social contract to these workers.

Last year, I laid out a three-step solution, in a Wall Street Journal article, to do just that: First, create a viable guest-worker program for the effective inflow of farmworkers. Second, workers who are otherwise in good legal standing should have the opportunity to earn legal status. Third, pass laws that enable a system of legal workers and secure borders.

Unfortunately, these are not normal circumstances, and action is needed now. Therefore, companies will have to step up and act like governments – develop a social contract that ensures the rights of their workers to some sort of safety net, for their sake and ours.

For a start, agricultural companies should start regularly testing all their workers to understand who has the disease. If positive, pay workers not to come to work, isolate them in special housing, provide them health care and further testing.

Of course, no company should be expected to do this in perpetuity, even if the circumstances demand it now. Governments, including the federal government, should step up, recognize the issue and provide as much support as needed and fill any gaps – including the gap in understating just how valuable all our immigrant workers are.

Many of us in the agricultural sector have known this from day one of this crisis. It is also why I support the #AllofUS campaign, an effort recently launched by businesses, faith-based organizations and immigrant advocates from across the political spectrum to advance a positive conversation around the idea that all of us – citizens and immigrants – are in this battle against COVID-19 together.

At the end of the day, immigrants provide an indisputable value to our country, our economy, our ability feed to the hungry, heal the sick and re-emerge from this crisis stronger than before. By valuing them, supporting them, and not excluding them from any recovery effort, our own government can live up to its own “social contract” with all Americans.

Kevin Murphy is the former CEO of Driscoll’s, a California-based fresh berry company.

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