Opinion: Coronavirus Makes Us Re-think How We Value Labor and Lives

“It’s like suddenly they realized we are here contributing,” Nancy Silva told The New York Times.

Silva, a 43-old undocumented immigrant who has been picking fruit on American farms for most of her life while constantly evading immigration authorities, made this statement in response to the federal government deeming her and other farmworkers “essential employees.”  The Department of Homeland Security determined such farmworkers to “critical to the food supply chain.”

In other words, the work people like Silva do is vital to the sustenance and survival of all of us in America, just as are the grocery workers, truck drivers, workers in food processing plants, and every other worker making it possible for Americans to access food, not just during this time of the COVID-19 pandemic, but always. 

The current pandemic is simply putting a magnifying glass on the vital importance of, and our populations’ absolute dependence, on these workers for our existence, for making our lives possible.

The work is vital, and hence these workers’ lives are vital to us all.

Put another way, farmworkers’ lives matter.

Undocumented farmworkers’ lives matter.

Recognizing our interdependence with, our dependence on, these workers calls into question a lot of our practices and policies.

For sure, it asks us to consider the efficacy of, and indeed our self-interest in, the racist and xenophobic immigration policies and practices that enable and encourage the deportation of these undocumented workers upon whom our ability to feed ourselves depends.  Are racism and nativism really salutary belief systems for Americans if they result in removing from the nation’s economy those upon whom we rely for our well-being and nourishment?

Collectively, it would be healthy for the nation to reflect on this question.

The recognition of that these lives matter also raises a more fundamental question about how we determine people’s value in our current political economy and society.

The way our market economy determines the value of particular kinds of work, and thus be extension the value of the life of the workers performing the work, is not at all distinct from the moral valuation of lives in American.

When we talk about American values, we have to recognize that the economic and moral dimensions of determining value are inextricably intertwined in the United States.

The COVID-19 pandemic pushes us to look more closely at how we determine value, particularly how we value lives.

Silva is suggesting the moment is ripe for reconsidering our values—and the so-called market determination of values—in her statement, “It’s like suddenly they realized we are here contributing.”

In other words, the federal government and DHS asserted the crucial value of these workers’ lives to our world, to all of us.

And you would think if I recognized that my life depended on someone else’s labor, I would really want to ensure the well-being of that person.

But while estimates indicate that 75% of crop hands in the U.S. are undocumented, little is being done to ensure their safety from deportation; and little is being done to ensure their well-being, especially during this pandemic.

Labor journalist David Bacon draws the situation starkly:

For the first time in U.S. history farmworkers have been officially declared “essential workers.”  Without their labor, there would be no fruits, vegetables or dairy products in the stores.  Yet the economic situation of farmworkers has never reflected that essential status – nor does it now.  The last National Agricultural Workers Survey (NAWS) by the U.S. Department of Labor in 2017 found that the average farmworker family had an annual income between $17,500 and $20,000.

More than half relied on at least one public assistance program, with 44 percent using Medicaid (Medi-Cal in California).  A third received either food stamps or WIC nutrition assistance.  But most telling for families facing the pandemic, less than half of farmworker families have health insurance, and among them, only a third got it from their employer.  A third of farmworker families paid cash for doctor visits, and a quarter relied on Medicaid or Medicare.

Bacon additionally highlights the unsanitary and close working conditions for farmworkers, leaving them particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus.

Are we valuing these workers’ lives, recognizing they matter crucially to us? That our survival depends on them?

Put another way, have we properly assess these workers’ merit?

Doing so, I’ll suggest, should make us re-think meritocracy itself.

As a culture, we largely take the justness and legitimacy of meritocracy for granted because few people question why a doctor, lawyer, politician, or banker earns a higher salary than a custodian, postal worker, grocery store cashier, fast food worker, social worker, or teacher.

Certain work, the belief goes, deserves a higher remuneration than others.

In short, according to the story, people get what they deserve, and the market determines what people deserve just fine. This belief in meritocracy thus enables us to justify poverty, people not having access to proper health care, not being able to afford college, not being able to afford food or housing, and so forth.

With their thinking shaped by this framework, it has just come to make sense to most Americans, even if we are all performing socially necessary labor that makes all of our lives possible, that some people on the basis of what they do deserve to live in nicer neighborhoods, own larger houses, eat healthier foods, have access to better education, and drive better cars.

They deserve greater access to social resources, a larger piece of the pie. They deserve to consume more.

And yet, as we see with these farmworkers, de-valuing their work means de-valuing their lives by denying them access to the basic care and resources necessary for their well-being.

When we recognize this dependence, does this kind of valuation of lives make sense?

Does it make sense, given our interdependence, to have a hierarchy of merit, of valuing lives?

This pandemic is pushing us to reconsider how we determine merit and how we value lives.