Farm worker labor bill outlines much larger issue

Posted 5/22/19

It must be strange to stand in front of a room full of people and say you don’t want to be paid more—but that’s where several migrant farm workers in Sullivan County found …

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Farm worker labor bill outlines much larger issue

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It must be strange to stand in front of a room full of people and say you don’t want to be paid more—but that’s where several migrant farm workers in Sullivan County found themselves earlier this month.

The third of three public hearings held on the farm worker fair labor rights bill for New York State took place at SUNY Sullivan on May 2. The public was invited to speak on the legislation, which would grant overtime pay, bargaining rights, workers comp, unemployment insurance eligibility and sanitation codes in housing provided for farmers.

Formally called Senate Bill S2837, the bill is still in the Senate Labor Committee and receiving significant pushback from the minority party as well as New York farmers. Just this week, a group of Republican legislators in New York signed a letter urging their counterparts to take more feedback from farmers before passing the bill.

Most farmers who took the stand over the five and a half hours at SUNY Sullivan repeatedly said this bill would be the “nail in the coffin” for their already economically struggling operations. The few farm workers who spoke—in front of their employers—said they are worried their jobs will be cut altogether if their employers can’t afford requirements of the bill.

Several of the senators listening, with the exception of Jen Metzger who represents a rural area, admitted to being unfamiliar with the farm industry. The overwhelming message from farmers to them that day was: we are unique.

They’re right.

There isn’t an industry in the U.S. quite like farming. It is perhaps the largest legal industry that continuously takes advantage of “illegal” labor. Farm workers have been left exposed to abuses including wage theft and harassment, with no options for protection from the government.

The fair labor bill is, in this vein, a well-intentioned bill, meant to limit abuses to the state’s thousands of migrant farm workers, many of whom are from Guatemala and Mexico and are here seasonally on H2A visas. Advocates from the Farmworker Justice Project argue that farm profits, including the New York “yogurt boom” benefitting dairy farms, has been on the backs of these workers.

However, most small farm owners in New York—who make up the majority of farms here—would laugh at the idea of a “booming farm industry.” Farmers who showed up at SUNY to say that they can’t afford to pay their workers more—in fact that they themselves aren’t getting money they probably deserve—are most likely telling the truth.

Only one person who testified that day pointed out that the real issue is much bigger than the relationship between farm owners and their workers.

“How is it that we have somehow normalized a system that excludes farm workers from fair protections under the law?” asked Beatrice Stern.

The entire farming industry in this country is broken if it makes sense for workers to be arguing against what should be in their own best interest.

The entire farm industry in this country is broken if a farm owner breaks down in tears trying to explain how hard it will be to have to lay off workers who have become her friends because a fair labor bill means she can no longer afford to keep them.

The entire farm industry is certainly broken if people who labor to produce the most basic necessity for sustaining life are millions of dollars in debt.

After five and a half hours of testimony, it became clear that both small farmers and farm workers have become victims to a much larger, structural issue with how we value food producers in this country. While massive farms—many of which do profit off of poor treatment of migrant workers—continue to receive subsidies, local enterprises suffer to survive through chronically low milk prices and competition with states allowed to pay meager minimum wages. Immigration laws nationwide, as well as the availability of cheap, mass-produced food has led to this issue.

If New York legislators, and those across the country, want to help farm workers, this bill won’t do it. We have to reexamine our priorities.

President Donald Trump’s recent tariffs dealt another blow to farmers who make money exporting their products to China. If the goal is ultimately to stabilize and better support American-made products, efforts need to be made to subsidize U.S. farmers or increase incentives for Americans to buy their produce, dairy, meat and fruit locally.

Otherwise, we will continue having this paradoxical argument that pits two under-supported classes of people—small farmers and migrant workers—against each other.  

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