Farmworker Voices: Contesting and Renegotiating Essential Status During the COVID-19 Pandemic

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Politics Groups and Identities

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Drawing on a subset of 30 farmworkers from the community-driven Oregon COVID-19 Farmworker Study, the paper examines how farmworkers interpreted and contested the contradictory label essential worker. Using discourse analysis, the article finds institutional recognition helped farmworkers assert a historically informed Campesino immigrant worker identity as a strategy to challenge their racialization and politicization in and out of the workplace. The participatory research methods based on trust engendered new perspectives among farmworkers who disrupted narratives of essentiality by highlighting contradictions between indispensable labeling and disposable treatment on the ground. In adjunct, Campesinos galvanized grievances about constraining webs of immigration and labor policies that lead to social and economic everyday devaluation, exposure, and dehumanization. Farmworkers referenced their body and labor contributions working throughout the pandemic to contest their wages, treatment, lack of protection in the workplace, and illegality. Results suggest the need to invite a historical understanding of the marginalization food chain workers experience and reproduced in today's commodified food systems transnationally. This study contributes to growing studies exploring the epistemological implication of labeling workers as essential through the perspectives and interpretations of farmworkers themselves and ends with practical implications.


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