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Are We Prepared to Pay the Price for Farmworker Justice?

By romanticizing local farms and assuming that ‘local’ means ‘moral,’ many miss the fact that whether produce is sent to a giant warehouse or a ‘farm to table’ restaurant, the farmworkers are denied the protections granted all other hourly workers.

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Migrant farmworkers picking cabbages in Ohio.
Migrant farmworkers picking cabbages in Ohio. What’s “local” about an international undocumented workforce?, Flickr/Bob Jagendorf.

Wearing a flannel shirt, Wrangler jeans and worn-in beige boots, Juan Antonio Zuniga has the look of a farmer but not the entitlements that come with owning an actual farm. Fleeing violence in El Salvador, Zuniga came to the US in 1991 and has been a farmworker in New York ever since. Today, he lives and works on a farm in Mattituck, Long Island, where he picks grains and grows vegetables. According to the National Farmworker Ministry, the annual average income of crop workers is between $10,000 and $12,499 for individuals and $15,000 to $17,499 for a family, an offensively noticeable difference from the $5 billion-plus that New York’s agricultural industry brought in last year.

“We are seen as an industry that does not need services,” Zuniga told attendees of a conference on Food Justice and Labor in the Hudson Valley in November 2018, “People think fieldwork provides for itself. Without us, there would be no vegetables, fruit, grains or wine. Farmworkers are the foundation of production. But we are hidden. We don’t exist. Farmworkers do not have a voice or a vote.”

Like Zuniga, Librada Paz also began life in the US as a farmworker, but now works as a farm labor advocate for The Rural Migrant & Ministry, a New York nonprofit that seeks to create a just and equitable environment for rural and migrant workers in the state. Originally from Oaxaca, Mexico, Paz and her family came to the US when she was 15. When I met her in Midtown Manhattan, she cried as she remembered her first years as an apple picker in upstate New York.

“When you come here, your only option is farm working because it is the job no one else wants to do. There’s nothing here to protect you. It doesn’t matter who you are, your immigration status or the color of your skin. If you are a farmworker, you do not have basic rights,” Paz told me. While picking apples on a small farm in Orleans County, New York, Paz lived in a one-room home with eight other men and women. “Each night we would switch who got to sleep on the mattress. Living in those crowded places really affected me. Everywhere I went men were molesting me, but I couldn’t complain because I feared they would not believe me. Even if I screamed no one would hear me.” 

A recipient of the 2012 Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award for her farmworker activism, Paz leads ‘know your rights’ trainings for farmworkers across New York State, and over her 30 years as a farmworker and activist in the US she has witnessed everything from farm owners who routinely fired their workers after each season, to farmworkers who lost their jobs because they asked for a sick day or got injured on the job. A few years after migrating to the US her own father fell from an old, unsteady ladder while picking apples. Paz remembers him with a broken arm but afraid to seek medical help or stop working. Eventually he was fired and forced to work at an egg factory in Maine. He never received injury or workers’ compensation.

Legislation to address these problems is essential, but on its own it won’t be enough to protect and enhance farmworker justice. What’s also needed is a reconceptualization among consumers and activists of what it takes to create and sustain ‘good farms’ – whether corporate or local. Improved wages and working conditions, lowering pollution from chemical fertilizers, increasing seed diversity, and protecting animal welfare all translate into a willingness to pay higher prices that can help to secure a more robust set of labor protections and rights. Agricultural workers make an indispensable contribution to the US economy, and they should be treated with dignity and respect. As Zuniga told the Hudson Valley conference, “We need an awakening of consciousness for everyone to understand how important we are as workers of the land.”

Paz says that a key problem are the loopholes in US labor laws that exempt farmworkers from the same labor protections that every other worker is afforded. “We’re only asking for basic rights, to protect us from abuse, from violence, from sickness and so much more. We’re not asking for much,” she told me.

This January, the New York State Senate has the opportunity to address this problem when the Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act (FFLPA), a 20-year old piece of legislation, will be reintroduced to the State Senate Floor. The legislation proposes amendments to New York Labor and Public Health Laws that would grant farmworkers the rights to bargain collectively, and to receive overtime pay, a day of rest, access to unemployment and disability benefits, and insurance if they are injured during the course of employment. It would also prohibit employers from paying certain farmworkers less than the minimum wage, and expand labor sanitary codes to all farm and food processing camps.

While it has been proposed in each new Senate session since 2010, the FFLPA has yet to receive the required votes from New York Senators for it to pass. However, with a newly Democratic-controlled Senate for the first time since 2009, there is renewed hope for the 100,000 farmworkers of New York.

Among many other things, the FFPLA attempts to resolve a contradiction between the Constitution of New York, which states that all employees have the right to organize and bargain collectively, and the New York’s Labor Relations Act, which exempts farmworkers from this specific provision of the Constitution. To date, California is the only state in the US that has granted agricultural workers the right to overtime pay. As Renan Salgado, Senior Human Trafficking Expert for the New York Worker Justice Center, told me in an interview:

Even with political support to pass legislation and policy changes to address these structural issues, we still need to build much greater personal awareness of the realities of farm work in order to create a long-term constituency for change. Through ten years and hundreds of interviews, Margaret Gray, the author of Labor and the Locavore, found that most depictions of local farms obfuscate the reality of agricultural labor. Activism for farmworker justice has been focused on large corporate farms as exploitative industries, while small local producers have been seen as archetypes of the ‘salt of the earth,’ featured and admired by progressive writers like Michael Pollan and in publications such as EdibleKinfolk or Hudson Valley Magazine.

In these glossy magazine spreads, instead of photos of workers’ living in dilapidated trailers or working with duct-taped hands, New Yorkers see images of rugged farm owners proudly dangling their unwashed carrots from the roots to the tips. Such images are romantic and aesthetically pleasing, but they condition consumers at farmers’ markets and organic restaurants in New York City into believing that small local farms upstate are unquestionably humane, hardworking and just.

“We need to consider what’s local about an international undocumented workforce,” Gray told me, “There’s an inherent contradiction in us allocating praise and wholesomeness to land and farmers. I think consumers are identifying benefits of local that are not being passed on to workers just in the basic sense of recognizing them, their humanity, and need for improved rights and working conditions.”

By dichotomizing corporate and local farms and assuming that ‘local’ means ‘moral,’ food justice activists can miss the fact that whether organic fresh kale is shipped to a supermarket warehouse or an upscale ‘farm to table’ restaurant in the West Village is irrelevant to the treatment of farmworkers—they are still exempt from the protections that all other hourly workers are granted.

“I think we should rethink that dichotomy,” Gray added, “and imagine how a farm system premised on improving labor rights and labor conditions might benefit everyone in New York…as opposed to just buy local, buy organic, and buy sustainable, buy labor friendly should be added to a roster of marketing efforts.” 

[Olivia Heffernan is a freelance journalist and graduate student at Columbia University in New York. She also works part time at the Marshall Project and the Justice Lab. Visit her website at livheffernan.com.]