A Look into the Lives of New York Dairy Farm Workers
The Workers Center of Central New York is a grassroots organization seeking workplace and economic justice, empowering low wage workers to combat workplace abuses. The Center recently released a report based on face to face interviews with farmworkers across New York state from 2014–2015 (read: MILKED).
NY Dairy Industry
New York ranks 4th in the nation for milk production, and 3rd in the nation for number of dairy farms. While most of New York’s dairy processors are small companies, seven of the top 100 dairy processors in the nation are headquartered in the state. The dairy industry is worth $14.1 billion to the state economy.
In the mid 1990s New York dairy farmers, along with farmers across the US, began hiring immigrants from Mexico and Guatemala. Due to declining interest of younger generations in farming, the dairy industry is dependent on immigrant labor to help maintain the farms. The exact amount of migrant farmworkers in New York dairies is unknown, but a 2016 study found that within large farms the majority of workers are Latino migrants, most of whom are undocumented.
There is no demographic information about farmworkers, but from a basic sampling over the years for the MILKED report showed 93% were undocumented. Though almost all workers live at on site housing provided free of cost by their employer, this also means the workers are isolated from community support, and rarely ever leave the farm for fear of deportation.
The migrants that have documentation generally participate in the guestworker program, H-2A, (a temporary work visas for seasonal jobs). To hire through the guestworker program, farmers must prove they are facing a shortage of US workers. Though this provides a legal route for migrant farmworkers to work in the US, the program still consistently fails to protect workers’ rights. Additionally, the guestworker program ties the migrant workers’ legal right to work in the US to their current employer, which discourages them from speaking out about workplace abuses.
88% of people interviewed for the Milked report stated that they believed their employers cared more about the cows than their workers.
“One time at work, a cow hit me hard, and the owner came and only asked how the cow was. He did not ask about me. He did not care about me,” a farmworker reported.
Language barriers and lack of appropriate training around heavy machinery used at farms leads to accidents. Since many of the farms in New York are small, only 18% of New York farms are eligible for OSHA inspection and enforcement of safety practices. Two thirds of workers surveyed for the MILKED report they have been injured at least once while working on the dairy farm.
Farmworkers were excluded from the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, and thus do not have the right to organize or engage in collective bargaining. Farmworkers are also excluded from the overtime provisions of the Fair Labor Standards Act. Finally, the New York State Employee Relations Act does not grant farmworkers the right to collectively
bargain, and New York State Labor Law excludes farmworkers from overtime pay and the right to a day off.
“We work 6 days per week, 12 to 14 hours per day, and they don’t pay overtime. We
don’t have the same rights as other workers, that is why we’re fighting for our right to organize,” Crispin Hernandez, a worker currently seeking the right to organize farmworkers in Hernandez v. New York State.
After becoming a leader in helping to organize for workers rights on the farm he worked on, Crispin and another leader were fired. The MILKED report states:
“Crispin’s firing was a brazen act of employer retaliation. But so too was
it a reflection of a Jim Crow-era law that denies farmworkers the right to
organize without fear of retaliation.”
Federal reform of policies around migrant farmworkers’ rights is needed at this time, but because the current administration is unlikely to help in this effort, The Worker’s Center is working with migrant farmworker leaders to challenge state laws. Currently, migrant farmworkers are working with the Worker’s Center to establish drivers licenses for immigrants, English classes at farms, looking to pass the Farmworker Fair Labor Practices Act, ensuring a healthy living space and workspace for workers.
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