Labor Problems Are the Bitter Fruit of Farmers Markets

Small farms may be more sustainable, but they aren’t always ethical in their treatment of workers. A bill being considered in New York could help change that.

(Photo: 'Catholic Courier'/YouTube)

Jun 8, 2015· 3 MIN READ
Jennifer S. Hirsch, PhD, is Professor of Sociomedical Sciences at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health, and an OpEd Project Public Voices Fellow.
Margaret Gray, PhD, is an associate professor of political science at Adelphi University and author of Labor and the Locavore: The Making of a Comprehensive Food Ethic (University of California Press).

As we celebrate the return of summer fruits and vegetables and congratulate ourselves for buying local, we must acknowledge that local is only one dimension of ethical: Labor on small farms, where workers may go for weeks without a day of rest or work 80-hour weeks without being paid overtime, is a far cry from the idyllic image of the local farmers market.

While the $14 some of us so happily fork over at a local farmers market for a bag of apples contributes to the growing vibrancy of a food system that is local, it may do little to benefit the men and women (and sometimes children) who picked those apples. New York state, for one, is a major producer of apples and many other fruits, vegetables, and agricultural products—from cucumbers to pears to wine—with sales of local food exceeded only by California.

But the research that one of us has done on the Hudson Valley farms so beloved by locavores showed that the same poor labor conditions exist on these farms as on the industrial factory farms that are the target of such widespread scorn.

As New York legislators weigh passage of a law to improve laborers’ living and working conditions, the farmworkers who make this bounty possible need our support. The Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act (S. 1291/A. 4762) would make New York one of 13 states that are redefining sustainable local food systems to include attention to the humans who produce that food. The proposed bill would grant collective bargaining rights, overtime pay, a day of rest, and workers’ compensation benefits to New York state’s agricultural workers.

Passage of the bill would make New York one of a growing number of states whose focus on local food includes the humans who milk the cows, pick the fruit, and pluck the eggs from the nests. Eleven states have collective bargaining protections for farm laborers, and four have overtime provisions. California’s Agricultural Relations Act passed in 1975, and farming in that state has thrived. Even our neighbors in Baja Mexico have agreed to give farmworkers up to a 50 percent wage increase, along with year-end bonuses.

Related: Here’s Why Mexican Farm Labor Abuse Is Made in America

Conditions for some of the nation’s most vulnerable workers are improving, with legislation in support of an increase in the minimum wage to $15 having passed in Los Angeles, Seattle, and San Francisco. Farmworkers, meanwhile, struggle just to secure the rights granted to other workers more than 75 years ago.

The limits on agricultural workers’ labor rights are a legacy of the Jim Crow era, when both farmworkers and domestic workers were deliberately excluded from the collective bargaining protections of the National Labor Relations Act (1935) and the minimum wage and overtime laws of the Fair Labor Standards Act (1938). To pass this landmark legislation, President Franklin D. Roosevelt cut some nasty political deals with Southern Democrats, who demanded that “their” workers, who were largely black, be removed from these bills and other New Deal efforts. While workers in factories, retail stores, restaurants, and nearly every other sector were awarded higher, more stable wages and new rights, farm labor was left with its piece rates and poor working conditions. Farmworkers’ exclusion from these laws has made them vulnerable to exploitation, and around the country labor law violations on farms, including wage, theft, unsafe housing, and unsafe transportation, are pandemic.

To this day, any improvements in working conditions for agricultural or domestic workers, such as the recent historic passage of the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights in New York, happen at the state level. To be sure, New York’s farmworkers have seen modest gains in the past 20 years. The Justice for Farmworkers campaign, supported by a statewide coalition led by Rural & Migrant Ministry, resulted in a 1999 law granting farmworkers the right to earn the same minimum wage as every other worker in the state.

The pending legislation would not provide special treatment; rather, the bill’s key provisions give agricultural workers the same basic labor rights as New York’s other workers. As one Hudson Valley field hand put it, “They treat us like nothing; they only want the work.” Research has shown a connection between a policy environment that favors business over labor and fatal occupational injuries—a relationship exemplified by the more than 60 deaths between 2007 and 2012 on New York’s crop and dairy farms.

Last month, dozens of delegations from the Justice for Farmworkers Campaign met with key legislators in Albany. In one meeting, an Orange County farmworker told of having been fired because she took a day off from work to care for her sick daughter. Later that day, her eyes welled up with tears and her voice caught as she described the ways in which female agricultural workers are vulnerable: “They are forced to go with the boss—like a woman with a man. They can’t say no, because they are afraid.”

State Sen. James Sanders, whose father was a farmworker, responded: “I can’t believe that it’s 2015 and we are even still having this conversation. Let’s get this done.”

New York’s dairy farmers claim that the overtime provision would harm consumers. In reality, the costs to the consumer would be minimal, while the impact on farmworkers would be transformational. According to one estimate, paying overtime to dairy workers, who log an average of 60 hours a week, would earn each worker approximately $5,000 per year while raising the price of a quart of milk by a penny. For a family of four who consume milk at average rates, that’s 80 cents a year.

Support for the bill has been consistently strong in the state assembly since 2001; it has passed all six times it has been introduced. This year, with 28 Democratic senators in support and five Republicans who were at least supportive enough to vote it out of the labor committee, there should be enough support for passage in the senate as well. Long Island senators are critical for this vote. But time is short, with the legislative session due to end June 17.

One of the promises of local food was that without middlemen, farms would increase their profits. Now it’s time to pass a portion of those profits on to those stooped over in fields across the state. The Farmworker Fair Labor Practices Act would purge the bitter aftertaste of exploitation from the goodness of New York’s local food system.