Georgia's Essential Farm Labor and Disposable Farmworkers in the Covid-19 Pandemic

Authors: Caroline Keegan*, University of Georgia
Topics: Economic Geography, Cultural and Political Ecology, Ethnicity and Race
Keywords: Farmworkers, H-2A, Covid-19, Pandemic, Essential Labor, US South
Session Type: Virtual Paper
Day: 4/8/2021
Start / End Time: 8:00 AM / 9:15 AM
Room: Virtual 15
Presentation File: No File Uploaded

As farmworkers became “essential” during the pandemic, US growers demanded unfettered access to foreign labor. After initially announcing a freeze on all immigration processing, the Trump Administration quickly bowed to farmers’ demands, making an exception only for temporary agricultural guestworkers under the H-2A program. Through a case study of farm labor in Georgia, a national leader in the use of the H-2A program, this paper highlights how the pandemic intensified social reproductive struggles for farmworkers, who are physically and socially isolated in rural communities, housed in crowded barracks, and transported on packed schoolbuses. Dependent on their employer not only for wages, but also housing, access to services, and legal immigration status, H-2A workers provide a unique lens by which to interrogate modern configurations of low-wage labor and social reproduction, particularly in the context of Covid-19. These rural labor geographies highlight the construction of a workforce that is flexible, deportable, and “outside” of the rights and privileges of US society. Although they are “essential” during the pandemic, farmworkers have not benefited from greater bargaining power but instead are treated as necessary sacrifices in defense of agricultural production, highlighting a tendency for labor concessions during crises. In April, US Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, announced that he was working “to see how to reduce wage rates for foreign guest workers on American farms, in order to help US farmers struggling during the coronavirus.” In October, the USDA announced a bureaucratic change that could reduce H-2A wages by more than half in some states.

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