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Rights for farmworkers in NYS

Por Gerardo Gutiérrez
December 2013
As the holidays approach and we prepare to feast in our homes let us give thanks for those who pick up our fruits and vegetable in the fields. In fact, let us give thanks to all of the food workers in our nation who process food, distribute produce, and serve families in restaurants.

There are over 20 million food workers in the nation accounting for one of the fastest growing sectors.  Unfortunately, the vast majority of these workers have a salary that barely reaches the poverty line.  This is particularly true for those workers who depend on tips to make a living (waiters, bussers and others) and for farmworkers who are twice as likely as other workers to live below the poverty line. The majority earn an average of $10,000 to $12,000 per year. Some seasons are more plentiful than others, and we are now in winter where farmworkers have to compete for scarce year-round jobs and housing.

The recent increase in the minimum wage was a step in the right direction to give these workers a decent wage to live on and carry them through difficult times.  Yet there is still a long way to go to achieve fairness for those workers at the bottom of the pole.  Farmworkers, for example, are still afforded inadequate rights, both on the books and in practice.  At this time, farmworkers in NY do not have protections such as sick leave, overtime pay, a day of rest, or health insurance.  Children can work in the fields at the age of 8 with parents, or 12 independently—way below the standard for other work permissions—and in dangerous conditions involving pesticides and machinery. Farmworkers cannot form unions since they are exempted from the National Labor Relations Act.  If farmworkers try to organize or if they anger their bosses, they can be fired with absolutely no legal recourse. More than half are estimated to be undocumented, and live under the constant threat of deportation if they try to stand up for better conditions. [1]

As we move into the festivities we should give thanks for those who struggle to stretch the minimum to support themselves and their families.  As a matter of morality and humanity there should be boycotts, work stoppages, hunger strikes, marches, union negotiations, and a focus to win substantial improvements.  Decent pay to support oneself and family should be something that we all as workers, no matter the industry, should support as matter of moral right. 

[1] U.S. Department of Labor, “A Demographic and Employment Profile of United States Farm Workers,” Research Report No. 9, March 2005. According to a National Agricultural Workers Survey from 2000-2001, 53% of the farmworkers in the U.S. are undocumented. However, because these statistics rely on self-reporting, some people think the number is actually much higher. Rob Williams, the director of the Migrant Farmworker Justice Project, estimates that over 90% are undocumented. See: The Economist, “Field of Tears: They Came to America Illegally, for the Best of Reasons,” online, December 16, 2010.

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