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Undocumented women farmworkers toil under unique challenges

Published: Apr. 29, 2021 at 4:20 PM EDT
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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - While the majority of undocumented workers laboring on Vermont farms portrayed in the media are often men, women also work and live on farms across the state and they face a unique set of challenges.

At 27-years-old Yadira, like other Vermonters, takes time to enjoy her garden and her chickens. She is one of the thousands of undocumented migrants who call Vermont home. “I came to Vermont to follow my family,” she said.

Yadira, who asked that we not use her last name, lives with her partner and kids. She no longer works at the Northeast Kingdom farm, but her partner still does. Before the pandemic, life was as normal as it could be for an undocumented worker. That was until she needed to undergo emergency surgery. That’s when she first realized COVID-19 was a serious threat. “I kind of already knew, because we watched TV, but we didn’t think it was going to be something as big as it then became,” she said.

“Like everyone else, we knew it was coming from a country far, far away and we thought it would never reach here,” said Olga Patricia, another undocumented farmworker. “We work the same,” said the 26-year-old. “Nothing has changed... I milk cows 3.5 hours and 1.5 hours of cleaning with all the mess that cows leave behind, and 1.5 hours to clean everything.”

According to the Migrant Justice, about 20% of Vermont industry by volume are a part of their Milk with Dignity Program, aimed at helping ensure rights for farmworkers. “Milk with Dignity right now is covering about 260 farmworkers in the state and 40 to 50 of them are women,” said the group’s Will Lambek.

Working on a farm is a tough life with long hours in difficult conditions, but the women face challenges the men don’t, including gender discrimination. “For me, it was a lot harder for me to get a job,” Olga said.

“The pay is a lot less for a woman than a man because in their crazy mind they think that the man should be making more than a woman and that women can’t do the heavy work like a man,” Yadira said.

Lambek says it’s common for women to face discrimination on Vermont farms. “Women will come looking for work and they won’t be able to find it or the work that they find doesn’t pay as much or they don’t get the same hours as their male co-workers,” he said.

“Every time we do a job we have to defend ourselves more,” Olga said.

And just like the men they work beside -- Yadira and Olga are here to send money home to Mexico to help their families while providing for their kids that they are raising in Vermont. “It’s more complicated for us because we have a family to maintain here, and then maintain the family back in the country where we come from,” Yadira said. All while worrying about her aging parents. “In Mexico, the pandemic isn’t the only thing that affected us. It’s also because they’re older adults, they get sick.”

Olga continues her hard works as a farmhand and Yadira is now running a small business selling her homemade food. For now, they are too afraid to leave their farms but hope that changes when the pandemic is over.

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