US heatwave pushes agricultural workers to work at night: 'Even so, it's horrible'

·3-min read

The heatwave that has engulfed the northwest region of North America since June 26 has had a particular impact on agricultural workers, who usually work under the heat of the sun. Many of them have had to start working during the night to avoid the worst of the heat, as shown in videos shared on social media. The heat has increased the risk for these workers, many of whom already work in unsafe conditions, says one union.

The blueberry and cherry-picking season is at its height in the northwestern United States. To prevent the extreme heat from spoiling their crops, some producers have started accelerating their harvests, pushing to pick the fruit as quickly as possible.

To avoid temperatures that can rise as high as 42°C (107.5°F), agricultural workers in Washington State have started going into work as early as 3am.

A video posted on Facebook by a labour union, United Farm Workers, on July 3 shows berry pickers wearing headlamps beginning to harvest even though it is still pitch black.

“The heat is dangerous, but so is working in the dark,” writes the organisation on Facebook, explaining that “harvesters have to constantly move their ladders to reach the fruit and there are tractors in the orchards moving the bins”.

On June 26, an agricultural worker from Guatemala died from the heat in Oregon.

The caption of this video explains that Lorena, one of the workers seen here, sent this video at 3am.

'On one of the really hot days, a child almost fainted'

Lorena, 44, is an agricultural worker near Sunnyside, in Washington state. She filmed several videos showing how blueberry pickers have had to adapt to the heatwave over the past few days:

I like my work a lot, but this year has been extremely hot. So that we don’t have to work in such awful heat, the bosses decided that we would start at 3am and finish around 11am or noon. But even so, the heat is horrible.

Some parents bring along their underage children to pick berries. On one of the really hot days, a child almost fainted.

This video, filmed by Lorena, was posted on the United Farm Workers Facebook page on July 1.

United Farm Workers is also concerned about the lack of standards and protections for those working in the extreme heat. Worried about the health and safety of those working in the heat, the union has organised for volunteers to deliver bottles of cool water to workers in the fields.

These photos posted on Facebook show volunteers with United Farm Workers handing out water on June 28.

The heat is just one more challenge for workers already facing difficult working conditions. Paid by the amount of fruit they gather, harvesters often work long hours without taking breaks to drink and rest. Victoria Ruddy, the regional director for the Pacific Northwest for United Farm Workers told American news outlet NBC News that some workers were only paid $3.50 dollars (€2.95) for each basket weighing 25 to 30 pounds (11 to 13kg).

A majority of these workers are migrants from Central or South America. Close to half are undocumented and risk deportation. It’s not uncommon for children as young as 12 and elderly people to work in the agricultural sector.

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James Michael, the vice president of an organisation of producers, the Northwest Cherry Growers and Washington State Fruit Commission, told Modern Farmer that most orchards use sprinklers to lower the temperature around fruit trees.

The heatwave that has swept the United States is caused by a so-called “heat dome,” which is exacerbated by climate change. A record-breaking temperature of 49.5°C was recorded in Vancouver, Canada on June 30. Several hundred people have died as a result of the heatwave in the northwestern United States and Canada.

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