ALBANY − The New York Civil Liberties Union joined farmworkers, legislators, labor unions and faith leaders at an event in Albany today to press for passage of the Farmworker Fair Labor Practices Act, a bill that would grant farmworkers standard workplace protections. An estimated 80,000 to 100,000 migrant, seasonal, and dairy farmworkers across New York play an essential role in the state's multi-billion dollar agricultural economy. Yet, farmworkers are excluded from basic workers’ rights like fair pay, a humane work schedule, safe working conditions, and the right to organize and engage in collective bargaining provided in New York state labor law.
“Because of Albany’s inaction, farmworkers have been denied basic rights afforded to all other workers for far too long,” said Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union. “The people who work long hours every day to produce the food on our tables deserve the same rights and protections as all other workers. It is time for Albany to stand up and put an end to this persistent and profound injustice.”
The exclusion of farmworkers from workers’ rights stems from a Jim Crow-era compromise that President Roosevelt made in order to pass New Deal labor laws. To secure the votes of segregationist southern Democrats, two categories of workers were excluded from protection - farmworkers and domestic workers – who at the time were largely black. Today, farmworkers in New York State are primarily immigrants, and, eighty years later, they still lack basic worker protections because of outdated and racist labor laws.
Farmworkers labor under precarious, and often very dangerous, work conditions. Without worker protections farmworkers are especially vulnerable to wage theft, sexual assault and unsafe working conditions. In the dairy industry alone, sixty nine workers were reported killed on the job between 2006 and 2016. In interviews released by NYCLU and Rural & Migrant Ministry today, farmworkers discuss the corrosive effects of pesticides on the skin, being forced to work immediately following an operation, lack of health insurance, low wages, and no ability to have a day of rest.
Women across the country speaking out against sexual misconduct in the #MeToo movement have been joined by the voices of women farmworkers. “Women in the fields are among the most vulnerable to sexual assault and harassment,” said Lisa Zucker of the NYCLU. “Many workers risk their jobs, homes and ability to support their families if they speak out. Ensuring worker protections for farmworkers would enable women to speak up and seek accountability with less fear of losing their jobs and homes.”
In November, the farmworker women’s organization Alianza Nacional de Campesinas organized a powerful letter from farmworkers expressing solidarity with the Times Up organizers in Hollywood and urging them to highlight the women in the fields and other workers facing sexual assault outside of the spotlight. Monica Ramirez, co-founder of the Alianza Nacional de Campesinas, joined advocates in Albany today to speak about the barriers to addressing sexual assault in the fields.
"Congress has denied farmworkers basic labor protections for decades. Lawmakers in New York have an opportunity to do the right thing and extend basic workplace protections to the women, men and children who feed us,” said Monica Ramirez, co-founder of Alianza Nacional de Campesinas. “Failing to pass the Farmworker Fair Practices Act will leave farmworker women at risk for the continued widespread sexual harassment, subminimum wages and the dangerous working conditions that they currently face. We are looking to New York lawmakers to step in where our federal political leaders continue to fail."
In addition to participating in a rally and meetings with legislators, members of the New York Civil Liberties Union organized a demonstration to connect the struggle of farmworkers to the food that they produce for New Yorkers. Demonstrators held a large representation of an apple and a milk carton, key New York state products, with the messages: “Would you eat this apple if you knew the worker who harvested it had been sexually assaulted in the field? Would you drink this milk if you knew the worker who milked the cow didn’t have the right to overtime pay or a day of rest?”
The day’s events were organized as part of the Justice for Farmworkers Campaign led by Rural & Migrant Ministry. Speakers at the midday rally included Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act bill sponsors Senator Marisol Alcantara and Assemblywoman Cathy Nolan, farmworker Mateo Hernandez, farmworker rights activist Librada Paz, Hispanic Federation’s Jose Calderon, and Andy Pallotta of the NY State United Teachers, who were joined by farmworkers, faith leaders, labor leaders, NYCLU members and other advocates.