June 5, 2015
By Joe Maniscalco
New York, NY – Tens of thousands of farm workers still toiling under Jim Crow-era conditions throughout the state may finally be close to winning most of the basic labor protections virtually every other worker in the United States already takes for granted.
Fast food workers here have succeeded in capturing the country’s attention in their fight for $15 and a union, but far less is known about the plight of farm workers integral to New York State’s nearly $2 billion agriculture industry.
The largely Latino workforce spends as much as 15 hours a day — every day — harvesting New York’s money crops — cabbage, apples, grapes, pears, strawberries and tart cherries.
Historically excluded from legislation aimed at improving the lives of workers, many farm hands in New York State operate under an archaic “piece work” system which functions outside of the established minimum wage scale, and forces workers to haul as many 50 lb. bushels of produce each day as humanly possible.
Despite the literally backbreaking work, farm workers are not subject to overtime pay, disability insurance, unemployment benefits, or the right to collective bargaining.
The inequities also leave women especially vulnerable to sexual abuse on the job, and exposure to questionable pesticides is commonplace as well.
This week, State Senator Adriano Espaillat [D,WF – 31st District], sponsor of one of two bills — A.4762 and S. 1291 — which seek to extend labor protections to farmworkers, called working conditions on New York farms the state’s “dirtiest secret.”
“Big agriculture must step up and realize they must treat their workers like any other worker in New York State,” the downstate legislator said. “Many feel this is happening because [immigrant farm workers] can’t vote — but this is a human issue.”
Several years ago, Assemblymember Catherine Nolan [D-37th District], sponsor of A.4762, inspected working conditions at a farm in Orange County and was shocked by what she found.
“From this experience I saw the inequalities that these workers faced compared to others,” Assemblymember Nolan said. “These farmworkers had no bathroom breaks, no clean drinking water, low wages, no day of rest, and most importantly, no ability to collectively bargain.”
A half century ago, Cesar Chavez and the National Farm Workers Association, fought for, and won, important gains for farm workers in California. Today, while low-wage earners from a variety of industries routinely invoke the late labor leader’s "Sí, se puede” mantra in their growing movement for worker rights, farmworkers in New York State continue to remain far behind.
“Why has this taken a half century?” Civil Sercice and Labor Committee Chair I. Daneek Miller [D-27th District] said this week. “I find it utterly embarrassing. This is a real opportunity to correct an injustice.”
Senator Espaillat’s farmworker bill has 28 sponsors and has successfully moved out of the labor committee — but it still needs a total of 32 sponsors to get to the finance committee and then onto the senate floor. Six legislators from across the aisle have expressed support.
The New York City Council’s Civil Service and Labor Committee has responded with a resolution of its own, calling on Governor Cuomo and the State Legislator to join together and extend labor protections to farmworkers before the current legislative session concludes on June 17.
“We are perhaps the closest we’ve ever been [to extending labor protections to farmworkers],” Senator Espaillat said. “It is shameful that 50 years after Cesar Chavez we continue to treat farmworkers like this. We need the governor to step up and make this part of his legislative priorities.”