Op-Ed: Join the Justice for Farmworkers Campaign - United to Protect New York's Farmworkers

In a series of Op-Eds and articles, FSNYC is providing multiple perspectives and history on farmworker labor issues, including on the proposed NYS Farmworker Fair Labor Practices (FFLP) Bill (2013). The collection of Op-Eds can be found here.

*The opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not constitute the opinions of Food Systems Network NYC*

 

by Abbey Augus & Kendal Nystedt

 

In New York, farming is a $4 billion industry, making the state one of our nation’s agricultural leaders. In the last five years, dairy production alone has risen nearly 60 percent due to a surge in the popularity of Greek yogurt. New York’s farmers are benefiting from this surge, as well as from growing consumer demand for locally grown produce and substantial government support.  Lost amidst this boon, however, are New York’s farmworkers who lack even the most basic labor protections. The Justice for Farmworkers Campaign seeks to end this injustice by passing the Farmworker Fair Labor Practices Act – legislation that would finally grant New York’s farmworkers the labor protections that are given to other workers.

 

An estimated 80,000 to 100,000 migrant, seasonal, and dairy farmworkers labor on New York’s farms.  Since much of New York’s farming is labor intensive, farmworkers form the backbone of the state’s industry. Yet, New York’s farmworkers are excluded from the rights and protections afforded to other workers. According to a report by Rural & Migrant Ministry, a dairy farmworker reported being paid $7.15 per hour for eighty hours of work in a week, with a day’s shift ranging from four to twenty hours. A Bard College study describes another worker who was paid “piece rate”; because this worker earned less than two dollars for every bushel of apples picked, he made as little as $54 for a work shift of eight to ten hours. A bushel of apples weighs about forty-eight pounds, and workers pick as many as 100 bushels a shift. This means that a worker may end up picking as many as 4,800 pounds of apples during a day. Despite these long hours and low pay, New York’s farmworkers do not have the right to overtime pay nor to a day of rest per week. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, farm work is one of the most dangerous – and fatal –occupations.  Yet, farmworkers in New York are ineligible for workers’ compensation benefits and disability insurance. To make matters worse, New York’s farmworkers lack the right to unionize and collectively bargain with their employers.

 

As outrageous as this injustice is, the Jim Crow origin of this exclusion is perhaps even more shocking to most people.  When the Federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) and the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) were initially introduced, southern legislators sought to exclude black persons from these labor reforms.  Ultimately, these legislators won out, and farm and domestic work – jobs occupied mostly by black workers at the time – were exempted from these protections.  In 2010, New York passed the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, removing some of the exclusions for domestic workers.  New York’s farmworkers, however, continue to labor in the long shadow of Jim Crow.

 

The Justice for Farmworkers Campaign was formed in the 1990s to improve the working and living conditions of New York’s farmworkers. While the Campaign secured victories in the late 90s (winning the right to drinking water and sanitation facilities in the fields), New York’s farmworkers are still excluded from the basic rights mentioned above. Today, the Campaign is focused on passing the Farmworker Fair Labor Practices Act, which would eliminate these exclusions and put New York’s farmworkers on the same footing as all other workers. The denial of workers’ rights to farm laborers is inconsistent with the values of New York State and in violation of international human rights. It is long past time for New York lawmakers to act to end this injustice.

 

For more information or to get involved, contact: Socheatta Meng at smeng@nyclu.org.

 

Abbey Augus & Kendal Nystedt are second-year students at NYU School of Law and participate in the Immigrant Rights Clinic. As part of the clinic, they work with the Justice for Farmworkers Campaign.