Fair Treatment for Farmworkers — Si, se puede!

Rev. Richard Witt, second from left, and fellow advocates for farmworker rights storm the state capitol in Albany.

Rev. Richard Witt, second from left, and fellow advocates for farmworker rights storm the state capitol in Albany.

‘Tis the season: Ask about the working and living conditions of farmworkers at your local Farmers’ Market and CSA, and lobby your state reps. in support of the Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act (S. 1291/A. 4762).

Why? Living and working conditions of the farmworkers who plant, grow, nurture, harvest, and pack your food on small- and medium-sized farms in the Hudson Valley and throughout NY State are often abysmal. Can there be climate justice without farmworker justice?

Read more here:

Fair Treatment for Farmworkers

(A BCJN Point of View piece in The Riverdale Press, 6/11/15)

The season of summer abundance is approaching. The air is perfumed with the fragrance of black locust trees and honeysuckle. Robins have established their territories and are raising their young. Bronxites fortunate enough to make use of local farmers’ markets and CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture) will soon enjoy the fertility of the Hudson Valley and the coming months’ truckloads of healthy local produce.

America’s burgeoning food movement has given us much to be thankful for. Countless books and articles have revealed the ills of a food system based on faceless corporate agribusiness. Reform is happening: the lives of some farm animals are better; organic and biodynamic foods are more available; and there is a growing awareness of the harm done by toxic fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, and antibiotics. There is growing acceptance of the health, environmental, and climate benefits of a shift to plant-based diets, and there is a strong embrace, among those who can afford it, of eating locally, seasonally, and ethically.

But there is a worm hidden in this shiny apple – it is the treatment of America’s farmworkers, including workers in our own Hudson Valley. Though it’s commonly known by conscientious locavores that farmworkers are poorly treated on mega-farms in states like California and Florida, ethical food enthusiasts are often unaware that many of the abuses and indignities suffered by workers on the largest farms in our country are also endured on small- and medium-sized farms right here in New York State.

Although New York’s farmworkers form the backbone of the state’s multi-billion dollar agricultural industry, they are excluded from basic protections granted to other workers under state and federal law. This statutory relic of the Jim Crow era deprives more than 80,000 farmworkers of the rights that other workers take for granted.

In New York State, there is a clause after worker protection laws stipulating: “… except for farmworkers.” They are excluded from such basic protections as the right to a day of rest, to overtime pay, and to collective bargaining. Collective bargaining, by the way, is not just about joining a union – it is about being able to just talk about that possibility without fear of retaliation. And because many Hudson Valley farmworkers are Latin American migrants here on visas sponsored by their employers, they are reluctant to ask for better treatment.

The plight of New York State farmworkers is a result of the exclusion of agricultural work from the federal wage, hour, and labor relations acts of the 1930s adopted by most states. Only California, Colorado, Maine, Maryland, Oregon, and Hawaii now require time-and-a-half for overtime (though in some cases only after 60 hours of work per week), and just a dozen states give farmworkers the right to unionize. A legacy of the Jim Crow era, when Southern legislators, in exchange for their votes to support changed wage laws, demanded that agricultural workers (who were largely black), be exempted from many labor protections, these laws mean that much of the fresh food on our tables is picked by workers living in conditions akin to slavery. Yes. Our food is produced by an underclass of tens of thousands of untouchables whose children must work to help families survive, who are viewed as undesirable by the towns and school systems they must move among in the search for work, and who are harassed by the criminal justice system. It is not an unknown occurrence for children of farmworkers to arrive home from school to learn that one or both parents have been deported to their country of origin.

Rigoberto Baltazar (right) takes a break while working in a cabbage field. Each year hundreds of laborers from Mexico travel to Upstate New York to work in the fields during the May - November season.

Rigoberto Baltazar (right) takes a break while working in a cabbage field. Each year hundreds of laborers from Mexico travel to Upstate New York to work in the fields during the May – November season.

Enter the Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act (S. 1291/A.4762). The bill came upon the heels of successful, hard-fought campaigns to allow farmworkers access to clean drinking water in the fields during working hours, and to earn more than the minimum wage. It has passed the New York State Assembly several times, but has been blocked repeatedly by the Republican-controlled Senate. Opposition to the bill by Republican Senators and the New York Farm Bureau (an organization that lobbies Albany for the commercial interests of farm management), has stalled reforms for farmworkers since 2001. This, despite the fact that if labor protections were passed and the costs passed on to consumers, the grocery bill of the average New York household would increase by just $10 a year. The Farm Bureau has also proposed that farmworkers be paid overtime only after a 75-hour work week. You read that right.

The bill would establish an 8-hour workday; provide overtime pay of at least time-and-a-half after 8 hours of work; allow one day of rest per week; grant the right to organize and bargain collectively; ensure that housing facilities meet basic standards under the Sanitary Code including structurally safe buildings, clean water, adequate light and ventilation, and facilities for sewage disposal; require employers to provide compensation benefits to injured workers; require supervisors who learn that a farmworker is injured on the job to inform the farm owner, etc.

If what you’ve read so far bothers you, here are ways to take action and to be a voice for the voiceless:

1) Urge your State Assemblyperson and Senator to co-sponsor and actively support S. 1291/A.4762. Senator Jeffrey Klein (34th district), can play a key role in helping to bring the bill to the floor for a vote. Please encourage him to do so if you are a constituent.

2) Ask for transparency from your farmers’ market and CSA: who are their workers, and what are their working and living conditions? Ask farm owners to publicly support the Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act

3) Support the work of the Rural & Migrant Ministry, a non-profit, Poughkeepsie-based organization that has worked hard for New York State farmworker rights for more than 30 years.

4) Join Bronx Climate Justice North’s Food Justice Working Group, which is helping to build support for S. 1291/A. 4762, and ties between upstate farmworker youth and Bronx youth around food, labor, and youth justice issues. For more information, email: bronxclimatejusticenorth@gmail.com

5) Read Margaret Gray’s Labor and the Locavore: The Making of a Comprehensive Food Ethic, which focuses on farm labor practices in the Hudson Valley.

At Farmworker Albany Day on May 19, 2015, the halls of state government rang with the cries of scores of farmworker allies (and just a tiny handful of farmworkers, since they cannot leave the fields for a single day without jeopardizing their jobs), demanding justice for the people who feed us and who are abused, rendered invisible, and almost literally enslaved.

Let’s make permanent change happen at long last. Let’s make our state a beacon of hope for farmworkers all across the country… Si se puede!

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About JenniferS.

A founding member of Bronx Climate Justice North.
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