BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KERO) — The United Farmworkers Foundation, which started in Kern County, is pushing to improve the living conditions of migrant farmworkers across the country.
To provide some background, the United States began recruiting people from outside the country to temporarily work in the fields after World War II. Since then, the program has helped fill the thousands of agricultural jobs needed to keep the industry growing. The program also provides homes for these workers, but historically those homes have not been the best.
"Forty people living in one small apartment. There is one restroom. There's one shower and there is no AC and that the living conditions are really really bad," explained Eriberto Fernandez, the government affairs deputy director with the UFW Foundation. "We have had stories where people tell us that they're sleeping on the floor or where they have to sometimes cook in kitchens that are really unkept and roach infested. And in some cases, we hear stories of farm workers who are living in these converted motel rooms and they are living for maybe sometimes 5 to a bedroom and that's really not the most adequate and humane way to treat farm workers who come to this country to make a living for their families."
It is a story Fernandez hears far too often from migrant workers from all over the country. He says despite the living conditions, many are grateful to have a job and that could sometimes deter them from speaking out for themselves.
"These are employer-provided homes or county-provided homes. It's really hard for them to go up against an employer right? It's one thing to complain about wages and to ask for a day off but it's another thing to ask your employer to improve their housing condition when they're being provided to you. We want the program to exist."
Fernandez adds because the industry is largely unregulated, this is not the only issue with the program, claiming recruitment is often done through extortion or having people pay to get on waiting lists. And to be clear they say they want the program to continue, but are urging the Biden Administration to look at the issues and work on ways to improve the situation.
Meanwhile, in Kern County, there has been some progress. Migrant camps have existed since the Dust Bowl when the Sunset Camp was created for those migrating from Oklahoma to California to work the fields. Today, the Sunset Camp is still up and home to many local H2A migrant workers.
"When you see the type of housing that the Sunset Labor Camp provides for farmworkers, it is really nice. It would be the housing that any one of us would be proud to live in and so we do have to thank God the Kern County supervisors and all of those that provided that nice housing for the farm workers," said Dolores Huerta, president and founder of the Dolores Huerta Foundation and co-founder UFW.
Although most in the H2A program are single, many do have families which is why Dolores Huerta commends the school right next to the camp in Kern County that provides an education for those kids. However, she says there is still work to be done.
"But even the Sunset Labor Camp, as nice as it is, it does not have enough housing for all the migrant workers that come in during the summer to put the crops we have here in California."
Meanwhile, the UFW is pushing for legislative action from D.C. for this and heat regulations. They are creating a network of lawyers that can represent migrant workers in these situations.