Community and civil rights advocates, religious leaders and farmworkers gathered in Albany today to urge state lawmakers to enact the Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act – legislation that will extend basic labor rights and protections to the state’s farmworkers. Despite the fact that farmworkers form the backbone of the state’s $3.6 billion agriculture industry, they are denied basic labor protections, including rights to overtime pay, to a day off per week and to workers’ compensation if they are injured on the job. In 2010, New York enacted similar legislation that granted fundamental labor rights and protections to domestic workers in New York State. Securing protections for farmworkers is the critical next step. “Picking apples and planting cabbage is extremely hard work,” said Labrada Paz, who spent 10 years as a farmworker in the Rochester area “Farmworkers work long hours, under difficult conditions, for very low pay. If you complain, then you lose your job and your family suffers. All New Yorkers deserve these basic rights.” There are an estimated 80,000 to 100,000 farmworkers in the state. The vast majority – about 78 percent – are Latino. They work long hours and earn incomes well below the poverty level. According to a study of Hudson Valley farmworkers, nearly one-third worked at least 60 hours a week. The same study found that nearly 60 percent earned barely more than the minimum wage. Often, farmworkers’ pay is so low that they must hold multiple jobs. And yet, many farmworkers still have total incomes below the poverty level. “Farmworkers feed all New Yorkers. The least we can do is make sure they are treated in a humane way,” said Senator Adriano Espaillat (D – Manhattan/Bronx). “I am proud to sponsor this legislation because it will provide critical protections to farmworkers, helping safeguard their well-being without harming production at New York’s farms.” “Farmworkers deserve the same collective bargaining rights, worker’s compensation, and unemployment benefits that other workers currently receive,” said Assemblywoman Catherine Nolan (D – Queens). “It is an injustice to think that in 2012, farmworkers are still fighting for basic equality under the current law. Together with Speaker Sheldon Silver and many of my Majority colleagues, we have championed legislation for the last decade that intends to fix these injustices that provide real protections for farmworkers.” Agricultural work is among the most dangerous occupations. Farmworkers perform physically demanding jobs that often involve heavy machinery and dangerous chemicals, such as pesticides. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the injury rate for farmworkers is at least 20 percent higher than that for all other workers. Farmworkers are at least seven times more likely than other workers to die due to job-related injuries. An estimated 300,000 to 400,000 children work as farmworkers nationwide. When major reforms to workers’ rights were established in the New Deal era, Southern segregationist legislators refused to support these measures unless what was then primarily black labor – farm and domestic workers – were excluded. Based on this deal, the exclusion of farmworkers from labor law protections is still the case today. “Denying farmworkers basic labor protections is a shameful holdover from the Jim Crow era,” said Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union. “Farmworkers perform grueling work, often with little rest and meager pay. They put food on tables, and they deserve basic labor protections that other workers take for granted, like overtime pay. It’s time to end an injustice through these sensible and humane reforms.” Among its key provisions, the legislation would:
- Establish an 8-hour workday for farmworkers;
- Provide farmworkers overtime pay of at least time and one half after 8 hours of work;
- Allow farmworkers one day of rest each week, which they may decline;
- Require that farmworkers are paid the minimum wage;
- Give farmworkers the right to organize and bargain collectively for the purposes of representing and protecting their interests;
- Ensure that farmworkers’ housing facilities meet basic standards, including structurally safe buildings, clean water, and adequate light, ventilation and sewage facilities;
- Require employers to provide workers’ compensation when a farmworker is injured or dies on the job.
“Every New Yorker deserves safe and fair working conditions,” said the Rev. Richard Witt, executive director of Rural & Migrant Ministry. “Passing this bill is a matter of basic human rights and dignity.” “It is an injustice that there are people in our state who do not have access to basic labor protections,” said Bishop Prince Singh of the Episcopal Diocese of Rochester. “In the long run, it would be in the best interest of New York’s multi-billion dollar agricultural industry and the state’s elected officials to address this injustice.” In the last several years, farming in New York has rapidly grown with the help of increased consumer purchases of New York-made products such as dairy and beef. New York agriculture has also continued to stabilize with the help of federal and state subsidies. Providing basic labor protections would impose minimal costs upon farms, especially in light of the industry’s stability and growth.