Testimony Before the New York City Council in Support of the Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act
Statement of the New York Civil Liberties Union Before The New York City Council Committee on Civil Service and Labor Regarding Resolution on A.1652/ S.1862 Establishing the Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act
June 11, 2012
My name is Socheatta Meng, and I am Legislative Counsel for the New York Civil Liberties Union (“NYCLU”). I would like to thank the Committee on Civil Service and Labor for inviting the NYCLU to provide testimony today on this Resolution in support of state legislation that would extend to New York’s farmworkers the fundamental rights and protections that are afforded other workers.
The NYCLU, the state affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union, is a not-for-profit, non-partisan organization with eight offices across the state, and nearly 50,000 members. The NYCLU’s mission is to defend and promote the fundamental principles, rights and constitutional values embodied in the Bill of Rights of the U.S. Constitution and the Constitution of the State of New York.
This resolution urges New York State’s legislators to remedy an injustice that has existed for nearly a century – the exclusion of farmworkers from basic labor protections under state and federal law. Farmworkers form the backbone of New York’s multi-billion dollar agricultural industry. Yet, they have long been denied basic labor rights that other workers take for granted – a day of rest each week, overtime pay after an eight-hour workday, the right to organize and collectively bargain, and to unemployment pay when laid off. The Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act would give New York’s farmworkers these basic rights.
In New York, agriculture is a $3.6 billion industry. 1 An estimated 80,000 to 100,000 migrant, seasonal, and dairy farmworkers labor on New York’s farms, making it possible for New York to be one of the nation’s agricultural leaders. 2 These farmworkers engage in intensive and grueling work; they plant and harvest our vegetables, pick our apples, care for and milk our dairy cows, and operate dangerous machinery and equipment.
Despite the essential labor that they provide, farmworkers work long hours and receive no overtime pay while engaging in one of the most dangerous professions. According to a 2007 study on farmworkers in the Hudson Valley, nearly one-third of those surveyed reported working at least 60 hours a week, without the legal right to overtime pay. 3 Nearly 60 percent of those interviewed reported they earned little more than the minimum wage. 4 Their income is so low that a substantial number of farmworkers – nearly 40 percent of those surveyed for this report – had multiple jobs. 5 And despite the income from multiple jobs, nearly 90 percent of those interviewed had total incomes that were lower than the U.S. Federal Poverty Guidelines. 6
Not only do farmworkers labor for long hours for low-pay, but they routinely risk their health and safety in doing so. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, farm work is one of the most dangerous – and fatal – occupations. 7 Farmworkers are seven times more likely than other workers to die from a work-related injury. 8 In the case of injuries, this rate is 20 percent higher for farmworkers than for all other workers. 9 This high risk of harm is related to many factors, including exposure to pesticides, and the use of dangerous farm machinery and equipment.
This exclusion of farmworkers from labor rights and protection is not justifiable – not as a matter of law and not as a matter of farm industry economics. Contrary to what opponents claim, New York’s farm economy will not suffer if basic labor law protections are extended to farmworkers. In fact, the New York farm industry has been flourishing, and is expected to continue doing so due to increased demand for products that New York specializes in such as beef and dairy. 10 In the case of dairy, production has risen nearly 60% in the last five years due to the surge in popularity of Greek yogurt. 11 Additionally, the state’s lawmakers and political leaders also give strong financial support to the state’s farm industry. For example, the state and Genesee County recently agreed to provide approximately $26 million in tax credits and other incentives to PepsiCo and a German dairy company that plan to open a new yogurt factory in Batavia, New York. 12 Considering the farm industry’s stability and growth, providing protections such as overtime pay and a day of rest would impose minimal costs on farms.
How is it that in 2012 farmworkers are excluded from basic labor law protections? What many may not know is that this exclusion is a legacy of the Jim Crow era. When President Franklin Roosevelt advanced major reforms to workers’ rights during the New Deal period, Southern segregationist legislators refused to support these measures unless farm laborers and domestic workers – then primarily black persons – were excluded. As a result of this deal, the exclusion of farmworkers from state and federal protections is still the case today.
In 2010, New York ended this sorry legacy for the state’s domestic workers. The Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights gave these workers the right to fair pay and basic protections of health and safety. New York’s farmworkers, however, continue to labor in the shadow of Jim Crow. And this injustice is still a matter of color and ethnicity. While farmworkers were once primarily black, today they are primarily Latino. In light of this history, the modern-day exclusion of farmworkers from the protection of state labor laws is particularly disgraceful.
The NYCLU urges the City Council to pass this Resolution, thereby impressing upon our state’s lawmakers the importance of the Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act. Farmworkers deserve the same fundamental rights and protections that are afforded other workers, and our state leaders must immediately act to end this injustice.
2 Worker Justice Center of New York, Work Place Safety, available at http://www.wjcny.org/program/flsnys-work-place-safety-project.
3 Bard College Migrant Labor Project, The Hudson Valley Farmworker Report: Understanding the Needs and Aspirations of a Voiceless Population 8 (2007), available at http://events.adelphi.edu/news/farmworkers/farmworker.report.pdf. (This report is based on interviews conducted with over 100 farmworkers from 19 different farms in the Hudson Valley in 2002).
4 Ibid. at 44.
5 Ibid. at 46.
6 Ibid. at 46.
7 U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Safety and Health Administration, Agricultural Operations, available at http://www.osha.gov/SLTC/agriculturaloperations/emndex.html.
10 U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service, “Net Farm Income is Expected to Decline in 2012 But Remain at Near Record Levels,” Amber Waves: The Economics of Food, Farming, Natural Resources, and Rural America (Mar. 2012).
11 William Neuman, “Greek Yogurt a Boon for New York State,” style='text-transform:uppercase'>The N.Y. Times (Jan. 12, 2012), available at http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/13/business/demand-for-greek-style-helps-form-a-yogurt-cluster-in-new-york.html . In this article Julie C. Suarez, the director of public policy for the New York Farm Bureau, is quoted as saying that “[t]he growth in dairy manufacturing, particularly in the Greek yogurt category, has really been a fantastic boon for New York dairy farmers.”
12 Thomas Kaplan, “Another Yogurt Factory Planned for Upstate,” The N.Y. Times (Feb. 24 2012), available at http://cityroom.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/02/24/another-yogurt-factory-is-s....