Silver Demands Fair Labor Practices for Farmworkers

AUDIO – 051513 – Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act – Sheldon Silver

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver joined with Assemblywoman Catherine Nolan and Labor Committee Chair Carl Heastie today to announce the Assembly’s intention to pass the Farm workers Fair Labor Practices Act (A.1792-A). The measure grants collective bargaining rights, workers’ compensation, disability and unemployment benefits and other worker rights and protections to all farm workers. The New York State Constitution unequivocally states that all employees shall have the right to organize and bargain. However, New York’s farm workers, which support the $4.5 billion agricultural industry, are excluded from these protections as a result of a loophole in the New York State Labor Relations Act. This translates to approximately 100,000 hardworking New Yorkers who are forced to live and work in deplorable conditions without the basic protections that are afforded to all New Yorkers under this law. “It is reprehensible that in a state that has long been a leader in instituting civil rights and equality for all that we continue to deny farm workers basic labor protections,” said Silver. “Through the approval of the Farm workers Fair Labor Practices Act, the Assembly Majority is taking a bold step in the right direction and removing legal exclusions that perpetuate the unfair treatment of farm workers.”

The Farm workers Fair Labor Practices Act would extend collective bargaining rights to farm laborers, in addition to allowing farm workers one day of rest each week. The legislation would also:

1) Affirm that eight hours constitutes a legal day’s work;

2) Require farm workers to be paid for overtime after more than an eight hour work day or in excess of 40 hours per week, at the rate of time and a half;

3) Grant farm laborers access to unemployment benefits, workers’ compensation and disability benefits;

4) Eliminate the authorization for certain farm workers to be paid less than the minimum wage;

5) Expand the sanitary code to cover all farms and food processing labor camps intended to house migrant workers;

6) Require foremen receiving notice of an injury to a worker suffered in the course of farm employment to inform the employer; and

7)  Make it unlawful to discharge an employee for requesting a claim form regarding injuries incurred in the course of employment.

Assemblywoman Nolan, sponsor of the bill, said, “Farm workers deserve the same labor protections that other workers currently receive. It is an injustice to think that in 2013, farm workers are still fighting for basic equality under the law. I commend the leadership of Speaker Silver and many of my colleagues who have championed this legislation for the last decade that intends to provide real protections for farm workers.”

Assemblyman Heastie said, “New York’s farm workers are the backbone of the state’s multi-billion dollar agricultural industry, but are not provided the professional support and job security they deserve. The Farm workers Fair Labor Practices Act provides farm workers with the dignity and respect they need to provide for their families.”

Kerry Kennedy, president, Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice & Human Rights, said, “My father, Robert Kennedy, cared deeply for the people who grow and harvest our food. But more than four decades since he and Cesar Chavez broke bread together, the basic civil rights they fought for remain a dream deferred for millions of farm workers in America. Our state legislators came to Albany to be leaders, to help build a brighter future for our state. This is the time to lead: to finally allow farm workers to enjoy the same basic rights as the rest of us.”

Mario Cilento, president, NYS AFL-CIO, said, “The fact that in 2013 farm workers aren’t treated like every other class of worker in our state is simply shameful and should be a cause of embarrassment for all New Yorkers. Farm workers are quite literally responsible for feeding our families, and as such we all have a duty to join their fight for the basic rights that the rest of us enjoy. We thank Speaker Silver, Assembly members Nolan and Heastie, and their Assembly Majority colleagues for their leadership and unwavering commitment to farm worker justice.”

Andrew Pallotta, executive vice president, NYSUT, said, “Farm workers are the backbone to the state’s nearly $5 billion agriculture industry, and like any worker in the Empire State, they deserve real labor and health protections. This is not only a legal issue, but a moral and human rights issue that will ensure dignity and safety for these important laborers.”

Donna Lieberman, executive director, NYCLU, said, “Denying farm workers basic labor protections is a shameful legacy of the Jim Crow era. Farm workers perform demanding and difficult work, often at poverty level wages. They put food on our tables, and they deserve basic protections that other workers take for granted. It’s time to end this injustice through these sensible and humane reforms.”

Earl Eichelberger, director, Catholic Charities, NYS Catholic Conference, said, “The exclusions that deny farm workers basic labor protections have an ignoble history. We have a responsibility to address this injustice. I have been involved in this struggle for over a decade and others from the Catholic Church, including Bishop Howard Hubbard, have been for much longer than that leading the call for change. I am proud to stand with my colleagues to press for passage of the Fair Labor Practices Act. It is long overdue. The time is now.”

Milan Bhatt, co-executive director, Worker Justice Center of New York, said, “For decades, farm workers have comprised the backbone of New York State’s economy, yet continue to face among the most grueling work conditions and egregious workplace violations of workers in any industry. This legislation seeks to put an end, once and for all, to the dehumanizing exclusions from basic labor protections instituted over 70 years ago, a remnant of this nation’s slavery era. The fact that New York allowed this tradition of oppression to persist in bodies of law intended to maintain dignity and respect in our workforce is nothing short of a disgrace. We can wait no longer for the passage of the Farm worker Fair Labor Practices Act.”

 OPPOSITION;

The New York State Farm Bureau says this legislation would impose factory style labor mandates on family farms.  From New York Farm Bureau’s perspective, a vote in support of the so-called “farm worker fair labor practices act” is a vote against New York’s hard working farm families and the farm workers employed. Keep in mind; the advocacy groups behind this legislation include unions, college students, and downstate members of the Legislature who do not understand either the realities of providing food for our tables.

More Comments from the Farm Bureau;

An overwhelming majority of farm employees, who routinely return to the very same farms every year to make a good wage and receive fair treatment, are not the ones demanding changes to the law that will restrict their hours and limit new opportunities.  This 25 plus year old bill seeks 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.  Farmers have never asked to be exempted from basic laws which govern all New York employees, such as the payment of minimum wage requirements, whistleblower protections, anti-human trafficking statutes and workplace harassment.

Attempting to apply overtime and collective bargaining rules that exist for factories are not appropriate or suitable for our state’s farms.  Simply put, harvesting crops doesn’t fit into a typical work week schedule. Rainy weather may keep farm employees out of the fields for a couple of days, and when the sun is out, ripe food can’t always wait for the next day’s 8-hour shift to begin.  Farms need flexibility that suits their individual needs in order to get local foods to local tables.

Just as important to consider are the employee ramifications of passing this bill.  Many farmers simply can’t afford overtime costs, as farmers are price-takers and at the mercy of global market conditions setting commodity prices.  Farmers who can’t afford the additional costs will limit the hours available to individual workers who come to this country to work hard and seek out additional hours to earn a decent living. Farms pay well above minimum wage, typically $9 to $12 an hour, and farmers in New York have the double edged sword of being the second highest in terms of farm labor payroll costs of the top 10 agricultural states according to research by Farm Credit East.  But the employees’ work would be shut off if they were to hit a state mandated limit on hours, which forces the employees to simply travel to a different state, or pick up additional hours on another farm, becoming much more like retail workers than farm employees.   Bottom line, they would make less income for their families back home under the Assembly’s plan.

New York’s farmers are dependent on quality, skilled agricultural labor, and go through great lengths to ensure safe working, living, and wage conditions for employees. Farm work agreements, required by state law above and beyond the Wage Theft Prevention Act, lay out the work to be performed, wages, work days, and a host of other important arrangements. If an employee is unhappy, they have every right and ability to simply vote with their feet and leave employment, just like everyone else in today’s work place.

If farm labor advocates were serious about helping farm employees, they would spend their great efforts in Washington, DC advocating for serious immigration reform to bring migrant workers who are here in this country with questionable documentation out of the shadows where they can lead more open and productive lives in this country.

We are hopeful that the public at large, and representatives in the New York State Assembly will consider the serious consequences of this bill, should it become law, to the ability of our family farmers to provide local foods to local tables.  It is noteworthy that the former individuals pushing this bill have actually been indicted for failure to adequately compensate their own employees.  New York Farm Bureau finds it ironic that the primary legislators behind this bill have rarely set foot on New York farms, or talked to real farm workers working in the real fields of New York.

This legislation will force serious change in our family farms, causing many of our members to stop producing the diverse fresh fruits and vegetables and dairy products that we do now and turning more to row crops that can be grown more readily in this state, which is already an extremely costly one in which to farm.

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