April 17, 2013 —
Two Latino farm workers appeared at a meeting of the Sullivan County Chapter of the NAACP as part of the New York State Justice for Farm Workers Campaign, which is advocating that the state legislature adopt the Farm Workers Fair Labor Practices Act. The act would extend rights, such as overtime pay, a day of rest per week and protection when seeking collective bargaining to farm workers. These are rights that are already enjoyed by most workers in the state.
The workers did not speak English, and therefore most of the 30 people in the audience wore headphones that allowed them to listen to an English translation as the men spoke in Spanish.
A man named Sostenes said that he worked at an apple farm, and at one point a crate of apples fell from a fork lift on his shoulder causing serious injury and rendering him unable to work for a time. He said the sub-contractor he worked for said that if he could not work, he could not stay at the farm. Farm workers are excluded from disability insurance. Eventually, a lawyer became involved and was able to communicate directly with the farmer, who said that Sostenes and his family could stay at the farm.
The other man, identified as Roberto, said that he works 12 hours a day at a farm, and does much more work than he used to, but is still making the same amount of pay that he did several years ago. Both men said they were looking for fairness and respect in the agricultural system in New York.
The Reverend Richard Witt, executive director of the Poughkeepsie-based Rural and Migrant Ministry, also addressed the audience and said that the exclusions in New York labor law extend to all farm workers, not only to those who are immigrants. He said the exclusions trace back to the 1930s when President Franklin Roosevelt was trying to get protections for all workers. Southern Democrats told Roosevelt they would back those protections as long as they did not extend to farm workers and domestic workers because “we don’t want black people getting the same rights as white people.” He said in the historical record there are “actual quotes of congressmen saying that.”
Witt said the issue is pertinent to Sullivan County because of duck, chicken and dairy operations located here. In 2010, the New York Senate voted against the Fair Labor Practices Act. The New York Farm Bureau is opposed to it because they believe it will sharply increase costs associated with operating a farm.