By Clair Poole –
In just another couple of months, our essential agricultural workers will return to the Shore under the H2A guest workers program. These workers have been invited to the Shore to fill labor vacancies that are not being filled by local workers. They pay taxes and contribute approximately $10 million each year to the Shore economy.
But these are far from the only folks of Hispanic descent living and working in our community. So who else is out there? How can we better understand these neighbors, and how, as neighbors, might we look for ways to help them?
First we have agricultural workers who come to the Shore, or live here year-round, who are not part of the H2A. All of these hardworking laborers (most, but not all, of them are of Hispanic origin) face serious challenges – challenges that would make most of us curl up in the fetal position and leave it at that. Harvesting quotas can be nearly impossible to meet or meet safely. Long days in the hot sun with insufficient water and only one short break to eat are excruciating and damaging to health. Low-quality housing (with no transportation for personal matters out of the camps other than weekly trips to Walmart) marks the end of the day. For all agricultural workers, whether they come as a part of the H2A program or not, hourly wages in this field are among the lowest in the country. And yet, the work they do is absolutely essential if we want to buy groceries in America. We directly benefit from their labor. They, unfortunately, benefit far less.
Let’s be clear: the backbone of so many industries that keep the Shore’s economy afloat are built on the labor of immigrant workers. Some are agricultural workers. Some work in health care. And some have become entrepreneurs in the building trades, eateries, or tiendas (small stores). If you haven’t checked out the various food trucks or tiendas selling food, you’ve missed out. Instead of going to your usual lunch spots, try getting out of the rut. Maybe make a list of Hispanic food trucks and tiendas and try each one of them. Find your favorite and become a regular.
As for our agricultural workers, simple actions speak loudly. Something as simple as a ride to the doctor’s office, a donation of an air conditioner or a few pairs of socks, help learning English, or a donation of food to the Dos Santos Food Pantry begins to turn the tide. Not only does the tangible help itself matter. The message it sends matters as well: welcome over distrust, kindness over disdain, and love over fear.
Claire Poole lives in Melfa and volunteers with the Legal Aid Justice Center, headquartered in Richmond, with staff and volunteers in several Virginia communities including the Eastern Shore.