Farm Labor Bill Brings Controversy

5/18/2013 7:00 AM
By Amy Halloran New York Correspondent

ALBANY, N.Y. — The New York State Assembly passed the Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act this week. The bill seeks to grant agricultural workers several rights, including collective bargaining, unemployment and disability benefits and an eight-hour workday.

“There was a lot of good discussion that took place, but it wasn’t enough to change people’s minds,” Assemblyman Bill Magee, D-Oneida, said of the debate that took place on the floor before the bill passed 82-53. “This bill has passed the Assembly many times. Hopefully it won’t be supported in the Senate. It will be devastating to our farmers if this is passed.”

Chair of the Assembly Ag Committee, Magee said farmworkers don’t want the bill.

“They want to work as much as they can before they go home to their families,” said Magee, who represents people from Oneida, Madison and Otsego counties.

However, many farmworkers who came to the capital to speak to legislators had a different point of view. Dairy workers from western New York told of 12-hour shifts milking 1,200 cows and never getting a day off, let alone for illness or injury. One woman said she slept on the floor for six months before she could buy a mattress.

Carly Fox of the Worker Justice Center of New York said that of the 68 people that came from her area to Albany, about two-thirds were from dairy farms. Fox works for what she calls an invisible population, the workers mostly Latino who milk cows for the state’s thriving Greek yogurt industry.

“Look at the website,” she said of one of the yogurt companies, and you won’t see any of the people who came to tell their stories and request protection.

The Justice for Farmworkers Campaign organized the rally. The campaign is a coalition of groups, many of them faith based, that formed a decade ago to improve working and living conditions for farmworkers in the state. The Rural & Migrant Ministry brought its Youth Arts group on a tour to raise awareness of farmworker injustices, and these students performed street theater at the rally.

The Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights and the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) also had a strong presence.

“The rally is to put pressure on the Assembly and Senate to pass once and for all the Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act,” said Andrea Callan, statewide advocacy coordinator for the NYCLU.

Callan traced the roots of the exclusion of farmworkers from state labor protections to the Great Depression, when Southern segregationists said they would only pass federal labor laws if they could exclude farmworkers and domestic workers. States then passed individual labor laws for farmworkers and domestic workers.

In New York, domestic workers’ rights were codified in 2010. NYCLU hopes to end the exclusion of farmworkers from state protections, and believes that a solution that serves both farmer needs and farmworkers can be reached.

Opponents, though, believe that the bill is a threat to farm viability in the state.

“Many supporters and defenders of our New York farms attempted to make the case this will not only hurt farms but also farmworkers,” said Steve Ammerman, spokesman for the New York State Farm Bureau.

Farm Bureau’s formal statement on the matter says the bill “ignores the fact that numerous state and federal regulations already exist that mandate fair labor, health and safety standards, farm worker agreements and employee protections, all of which New York Farm Bureau supports.”

In a video the organization posted online, Oscar Vizcarra, owner of Becker Farms spoke against the bill.

“We thought Mother Nature would be the biggest challenge,” Vizcarra said of the limits the bill could apply to expanding his business. “Now it’s the government view of farmworkers that’s being the problem.”

Dean Casey, a dairy farmer who sits on the Farm Bureau’s State Board also discounted the bill in a phone call interview.

“I think it’s just going to create more havoc on the ag industry,” said Casey. “I believe we are already at a disadvantage with the cost of feed, fuel and taxes, plus labor already being high expense. I don’t see how it fits the scope of ag as a whole.”

Casey is an employee at Tiashoke Farms, and would be affected by the law. He pointed to his day’s work as an example where the factory style time limits would interfere with farm productivity.

“Right now we’re planting corn,” he said. “The sun is shining, the weather’s fit, we have to go. We’re in this industry because we want to be in this industry and we understand the implications.”

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