Governor Jared Polis signed an historic bill on June 25, into law guaranteeing rights and protections for agricultural workers in Colorado. SB 87 is notable not only for what it does — guaranteeing rights and protections for ag workers in Colorado — but for how it does this. While other states offer an array of protections, Colorado is the first to make such a comprehensive state shift in how it treats its agricultural workers. The combination of fairer wages, a right to collective action, protections against overwork and heat stress, the prohibition of an oppressive tool, limitations on injurious stooped labor, the ability to access key service providers and basic necessities, retaliation protections, and a forum for public participation have tremendous potential to shift power dynamics within the food system and make it more just and sustainable.
According to Nicole Civita, Policy Director, Project Protect Food Systems Workers, the coalition supporting the bill, “this legislation also begins a change in the racist and discriminatory system built upon the backs of Black and Brown people—and there has never been a time in our nation’s history when agricultural workers were treated with the dignity and respect they deserve as humans, let alone with the rewards they deserve for performing demanding and truly essential work.”
“When Black and Brown agricultural workers thrive, so does all of Colorado.”
Nayda Benitez, Colorado Immigrant’s Rights Coalition
This bill also addresses public health issues that racist and oppressive labor systems caused for our state and for agricultural workers. Caitlin Matthews, Food Systems Coordinator, Tri-County Health Department explains: “Agricultural workers are integral to the public health goal of providing a stable and nutritious food supply. These essential workers deserve the same rights and protections as other workers in Colorado – both during public health crises and during their day-to-day labors. This law will improve agricultural workers’ ability to access resources such as healthcare, nutritious food, childcare, and transportation through increased income and wages; and ensure that agricultural workers have access to service providers such as community health workers and legal advocates.”
Fatuma Emmad, Co-Convener of Project Protect Food Systems and local Denver farmer at Mile High Farming, who began the process of bringing together a coalition of over a dozen organizations to support agricultural workers at the beginning of the COVID pandemic says “we quickly saw how the lack of legal protections or rights meant farm workers were being treated as expendable while doing essential work to keep our state fed.” From that realization came a coalition to write and support a bill that could assure us a safe essential workforce and a protected and resilient food system in the state of Colorado.
Though over 90 local organizations across Colorado supported the bill, there was fierce opposition to this bill as it worked its way through the legislature. Nicole Civita explains, “Too many farmers in America like to play up their own virtue while ignoring that they make their living on stolen land and secure their livelihoods by making sure that those who work that land cannot escape poverty and are too fearful to raise their voices. White farmers — typically holders of intergenerational land wealth who receive substantial subsidies from the government — cast themselves as victims in this legislative process. But the pursuit of justice for one group does not amount to the victimization of another. It simply reallocates some of the risks and benefits of agricultural work more fairly between workers and employers.”
Fatuma Emmad was surprised and saddened by the amount of disingenuous vitriol from the farm owners who wanted to maintain the exploitative system. “In working on this bill, it has been unfortunate to see the very same farmers and organizations attack us, pretend to not know who we are and make statements about the lack of farmers involved in this bill: to literally try to erase our stories from being told. Racism is well and alive in the United States and the struggle around this bill is a clear demonstration of how opponents, those who trace their history to their legitimacy as farmers to their granddaddy’s farms and not the Indigenous people they stole from, define the ways in which those we see as others should be exploited and deserve less. It’s funny how their stories always begin and end in history where they want.”
Immigrant rights activists praise the bill as a safety net for the over 80% of our agricultural workers who are Latinx, many of them immigrants or H2A visa workers.
“The passing of SB21-87 is monumental for Colorado. Many in our farmworker force are immigrants and already face a multiplicity of barriers, sometimes due to their immigration status or lack thereof, that put them at risk of exploitative labor conditions,” said Nayda Benitez of the Colorado Immigrant’s Rights Coalition. “The right to collective action, a livable wage, overtime pay, and the right to access key service providers are long overdue. SB87 will only strengthen our local food system and local immigrant communities. The Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition looks forward to an implementation and rule-making process that continues to honor the work of the people who put food on our tables. When Black and Brown agricultural workers thrive, so does all of Colorado.”
In the end experts from across the state supported the bill because it is good for Colorado and good for our food system. Joel McClurg from Blueprint to End Hunger clearly stated his support: “If agricultural workers are unable to feed themselves, it creates uncertainty in the entirety of Colorado’s food system. Without these worker protections outlined in SB21-087, our state is at greater risk of broader food insecurity due to ongoing instability within its farming workforce. As hunger rates across Colorado are elevated, having agricultural workers with strong systemic supports to thrive and work hard is essential to the health and wellbeing for all of us.”
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