Farmworkers are the backbone of New York’s massive, multi-billion-dollar agricultural industry. An estimated 80,000 to 100,000 migrant, seasonal, and dairy workers labor on New York farms. New York ranks among the top agricultural states in the country. It is the second largest producer of apples, snap beans and maple syrup, and is now the third largest dairy producer in the nation. Yet while New York’s farms may be flourishing, most New York farmworkers are not.
Since 1938, New York's labor law has excluded agricultural workers from the fundamental protections that almost all other hourly workers enjoy. Because of a compromise made by Franklin Roosevelt to get segregationist legislators in the South to support his New Deal, agricultural and domestic workers, primarily black workers at the time, were explicitly carved out of federal labor law and the state versions modeled after it. Today issues of race and ethnicity are still implicated by the impact of this injustice – where African Americans once made up a majority of New York’s farm labor, today the workers left unprotected are primarily Latino. As a result, those who do the backbreaking work of harvesting vegetables, picking apples and grapes, and feeding, cleaning, and milking herds of dairy cows, are excluded from the rights to overtime pay, a day of rest per week, and workers’ compensation when injured on the job. To make matters worse, farmworkers do not even have the right to engage in collective bargaining to try to improve their conditions.
Female farmworkers are especially vulnerable to sexual violence, too. In the midst of the #MeToo movement, hundreds of female farmworkers have come forward to relay their experiences of sexual harassment and assault in the fields. Without fundamental labor law protections, farmworker women can be fired just for banding together and approaching their bosses to attempt to prohibit this type of discrimination and abuse.
The New York Civil Liberties Union has long been a supporter of farmworker rights. For many years, we have been part of the NY Justice For Farmworkers Campaign. Together with our coalition partners we are organizing, testifying, and lobbying in support of the Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act, which would remove the exclusion of farmworkers from our state labor law. Additionally, the NYCLU is representing former farmworker Crispin Hernandez, the Worker Center of Central New York, and the Worker Justice Center of New York in challenging the discriminatory exclusion of farmworkers from the State Employment Relations Act, which protects other workers in New York State from unfair retaliation for organizing and allows them to engage in collective bargaining.