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Workers Justice Center of New York

Farmwork: It's Too Hard for Americans to Do

As their rights to bargain become possible, we have a story to tell

Kris LaGrange's picture
May 06, 2019

Over the last decade, the agricultural industry has boomed in New York. Companies like Chobani have turned New York into the USA’s top producer of yogurt, sour cream, and cottage cheese. Plus, they are a top producer of apples, snap peas, maple syrup, grapes, cabbage, and just about everything milk related.

Producing all of this food is often backbreaking work for very little pay. It is so hard, that it’s often done by migrant workers. These workers often come from Central America on visa’s to work for up to 10 months at a time. With their transitory nature and a ban in the Empire State on farmworkers joining a union, these workers are often exploited.

Many people might question why a farm in upstate New York or on the North Fork of Long Island needs workers who come from thousands of miles away when there are plenty of unemployed people in the community. The simple fact is that Americans just don’t want these jobs. Studies have found that even when farms raise their wages, local residents simply don’t want to put in 60-80 hours a week hunched over picking fruit or milking a cow. In a call in to NPR back in 2007, when President George W. Bush had farm owners worried about ICE raids, Rick, a farm owner from Geneva, New York said that on his farm they will advertise in local papers, get 12-15 people interested in the job, but then only 1 or 2 will show up. “If we didn't have the Mexican kids around here, we wouldn't be able to pick our fruit.” Rick went on to say that the pay was competitive and while he wouldn’t specify the exact amount, he said that it was more than social workers are making in the area. The simple fact is that we can not pick enough food to feed our country without these migrant workers.

Industries that have a largely immigrant workforce, especially if they have questionable legal status, often face numerous labor issues. Combine that with a workforce that often has limited time to do the job and the restriction on joining a union, it is no wonder that farmworkers are being exploited by their employers. Even employers that are following the law are allowed to require much more of their employees than other industries.

Legislators in New York are trying to fix this. State Senators are currently holding hearings around the state on the Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act. This bill would give farmworkers the ability to organize and advocate for themselves through a union, provide overtime pay, require employers to provide a day of rest for workers (although they could choose not to take the day) and make them eligible to receive unemployment benefits. These are basic benefits that are afforded to every other worker in New York.

The bill, which has already passed in the State Assembly, has the best chance of becoming law now that the State Senate is in Democrats hands. In previous years the bill has passed the Democratic-controlled Assembly only to die in the Republican State Senate.

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