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Farmworkers’ Rights and Preserving Small Farms Forum May 20th

May 4, 2010

Farmworkers’ Rights and Preserving Small Farms:

A Conversation about the Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act

The Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act is a New York State bill that was intended to provide fair labor protections to farmworkers who were excluded from the federal fair labor laws enacted in 1939.

The legislation’s opponents have argued that, in its current form, the bill is not fair to smaller farms, which predominate in New York State. This forum will explore how the rights of farmworkers can be ensured without endangering the livelihoods of small farmers.

Date: May 20th, 6:30 – 8:30pm

Location: Draesel Hall, Church of the Holy Trinity, 316 East 88th St

(between 1st and 2nd Avenues), New York, NY 10128

Suggested donation: $5-$20. No one will be turned away for lack of funds.

This is to cover the cost of panelists who traveled to speak at this event

Panelists include :

Ms. Jody Bolluyt, farmer, Roxbury Farm, policy committee member for NOFA-NY

Dr. Margaret Gray, Assistant Professor, Adelphi University, currently completing a book manuscript about Hudson Valley agriculture, food politics, and farmworkers.

Ms. Lea Kone, Assistant Director of NOFA NY

Ms. Librada Paz, former farmworker for several decades, farmworker advocate

Mr. Martin Rodriguez, farmer/owner, Mimo Mex Farm

Reverend Richard Witt, Executive Director, Rural & Migrant Ministry

RSVP here: http://www.nycharities.org/events/EventLevels.aspx?ETID=1546

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. Chris Pawelski permalink
    May 8, 2010 2:43 pm

    The following is an op-ed I wrote for HV Biz on this issue that ran on February 12, 2010. It provides a bit of info, context and facts regarding this legislation:

    http://www.westfaironline.com/hudson-valley-biz/article/7015-dont-apply-factory-work-rules-to-farmworkers.html?tmpl=component&print=1

    There is a bill before the state Legislature titled “The Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act” (S. 2247-B; A. 1867-A). There is a great deal of misinformation surrounding this bill as well as the issue of agricultural labor. Allow me to address a few of these issues.

    The primary proponent of this bill is a religious nonprofit organization called Rural and Migrant Ministry (RMM). The ministry acts as a self-appointed farmworker advocate organization because the overwhelming majority of farmworkers in New York state have neither elected nor chosen this organization or its designated leaders to represent them or speak on their behalf. Farmworkers do not attend their board or planning meetings and the handful that attend RMM’s annual Albany lobby day event are paid by RMM to be there. These facts were admitted by RMM Executive Director Rev. Richard Witt during his sworn testimony before the state Lobby Commission in 2001.

    RMM and its allies consistently claim that there are virtually no laws protecting farmworkers and they are “invisible” and ignored by society. The truth is there are roughly a dozen local, state and federal governmental agencies that enforce a plethora of laws that govern both the living and the working conditions of farmworkers in the state.

    Some of these laws, like the federal Migrant and Seasonal Protection Act (MSPA) only apply to farmworkers. Farmworkers are one of if not the most protected work force in the state. New York farmworkers earn, on average, more than $10 an hour. Most also receive free housing and all that it entails, including heat, electric and utilities. Many receive free cable or satellite television. Farmworkers in the state also benefit from a number of governmentally funded social-service programs that, in many cases, only exist for their benefit, including their own free government-funded health clinics, free day-care centers for their children (now 14 throughout the state) free child and adult migrant education programs, as well as their own free government-funded law firm which works only in their behalf. How does a farmworker compare with an urban resident working on the same wage tier when it comes to protections and programs?

    What we are talking about are five or six exemptions to state labor law. These exemptions, like the one for overtime pay, exist because of the production and marketing realities associated with farming. Farming does not take place in an enclosed building with a regulated environment. We have a limited time to plant and harvest. If overtime is enacted, farmers will have to cut hours during the growing season so as to afford the overtime at planting and harvest time which can’t be avoided. This may mean fewer overall hours and take home pay for farmworkers. And farmers do not control the prices we receive and cannot pass on increased costs. We absorb it or go out of business. Because of pricing and weather disasters, much of New York’s agriculture is reeling. In four of the past five years, my farm income was below the federal poverty line for a family of four. In 2009, my employees earned more than I did. Where would these self-appointed advocates and legislators who support them like the money to come from to pay for these mandates?

    I have no problem defending each and every one of the exemptions within the real world context of agriculture’s production and marketing realities. But I can’t, because the self-appointed advocates’ mantra is that these exemptions are “immoral” and “unjust.” They state that “there can be no justification for this unequal treatment. Attempts at justification of this exclusion are offensive.” Who assigned these organizations the authority to decide which exemptions are “just?” And many of these same exemptions that apply to farmworkers, like overtime pay, also apply to the employees of nonprofits and religious organizations. Yes, the very same organizations that are pointing their fingers at agriculture can legally “exclude” their own workers from receiving overtime. State legislative staffers also are exempt. Yes, the people who work for the people who want to end our exemption are exempt from overtime. The level of hypocrisy is astounding and they don’t have a leg to stand on to play the “moral” card.

    A number of farms in Orange County have switched from mono-cropping onions to growing a variety of vegetables. These farms supply the local farmers’ markets and the green markets in New York City. To grow those vegetables they have had to rely on a much bigger labor force than needed for the more mechanized onion farming. End the overtime exemption and they will be unable to afford their labor bill. They will go back to mono-cropping onions, if they can continue to farm at all. New York state’s unemployment and overtime exemptions for agriculture match the federal standard, making us competitive with neighboring states. If overtime is enacted you can kiss that local fresh produce goodbye as New York farmers will be unable to compete with New Jersey or Pennsylvania farmers who don’t have to pay it. And many farmworkers will lose their jobs. That will be the real world consequences of this legislation.

    The people who travel so far up the migrant labor stream, many year after year to the same farms, come here to work as many hours as possible to provide for themselves and their families back home. If the self-appointed advocates ever actually talked to farmworkers they would learn a common complaint is they aren’t receiving enough hours versus working too many. No one forces a person to work on a farm. If someone wants the benefits associated with factory work, they are welcome to work in a factory. But to attempt to apply the rules associated with factory work to agriculture is foolish public policy. Enactment of this legislation will undoubtedly lead to less locally produced food for our markets and a severely impacted upstate economy that is already hurting considerably.

    Christopher Pawelski is a fourth generation onion farmer in Orange County and is a member of the New York Farm Bureau’s labor task force. He can be reached at evep@warwick.net .

  2. Chris Pawelski permalink
    May 8, 2010 2:46 pm

    Go to this link and read the comments I posted in connection with the video of the hearing held back on March 1st:

    http://www.youtube.com/comment_servlet?all_comments&v=pu0ov9EduC4&fromurl=/watch%3Fv%3Dpu0ov9EduC4

    Go to this link and read the comments I posted in connection with the video of the NYS Senate Ag Committee vote held back on April 20th:

    Go to this link to learn a bit more about the organizations pushing this legislation. My article starts on page 10:

    http://www.turnpagepro.com/doc/Columbia-Publishing/OWJulyAug09/2009070101/?lang=en

    Here are a few other links:

    http://www.timesunion.com/AspStories/storyprint.asp?StoryID=814533
    http://www.timesunion.com/AspStories/storyprint.asp?StoryID=896400
    http://lancasterfarming.com/node/2053
    http://www.vegetablegrowersnews.com/newsroom.html?ns=2568

    Watch the video and read the materials found under my username under the more info section. The only facts uttered by by the Executive Director of RMM during this piece that are true is that the road is busy and the boy died. The rest is all a lie.

    Watch the video and read my comments on the more info section to see the details regarding their actions and how it conflicts with the tax code for organizations that file as a 501(c)3.

  3. Chris Pawelski permalink
    May 9, 2010 7:30 pm

    A major proponent/supporter of the bill is NYSUT (see this for details: http://blog.timesunion.com/capitol/archives/24105/espada-wants-farm-workers-vote-just-like-same-sex-marriage/). Last year they published an article in their June 16, 2009 edition of NY Teacher, a disturbing article rife with misinformation and chronicling a supposed tale of abuse that was not verifiable and absurd on its face. (http://www.nysut.org/cps/rde/xchg/nysut/hs.xsl/newyorkteacher_13156.htm) This is just one of many pieces written by NYSUT over the years on this issue. NYSUT’s President recently testified at a NYS Ag Committee hearing on the bill (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pu0ov9EduC4). The union has expended a lot of time and resources and political capital on this issue over the past 12 years or so.

    If I could question the people at the top of NYSUT I would ask these series of questions:

    Last year your publication NY Teacher reported the story of a woman who you named, Corrina Diaz, who was working 12 hours a day, 7 days a week for $1 an hour and spent much of her income on daycare. A wage of $1 an hour is a violation of current labor law. When NYSDOL officials contacted you last summer to name the farm so they can enforce the law and collect due wages you refused to name the farm. Why didn’t you name it? Confidentiality or retaliation can’t be a concern because you gave her name in your story. The NYSDOL person in Oswego went to every onion farm in Oswego and could not find this person. You were also questioned as to why Diaz was paying for daycare when there are 14 free daycare centers for the children of farmworkers across NYS and you couldn’t explain this except to claim she worked at night. Most onion farms do not typically work at night. How can you publish such a story when you are unwilling or unable to substantiate any of it? Is this how our children are being taught to formulate and back arguments and positions?

    Further, school funding in NYS is based on local property taxes. This legislation poses a real threat to closing farms that are already reeling in an upstate economy that is in shambles. Has NYSUT considered the consequences of enactment of this legislation on hundreds of school budgets across the state and how slash budgets can lead to job losses for teachers, their real constituency?

    As schools are now moving to cut teacher positions due to the state of economy and cuts in funding (see: http://www.recordonline.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20100323/NEWS/3230333/-1/NEWS) why is NYSUT not only backing but actively pushing for passage for this bill? If farms go out of business, and tax revenue is lost, where does NYSUT propose the money should come from to pay their union members’ salaries?

    If I were a teacher in NYS, especially working in a rural upstate school district heavily dependent on agriculture for its tax base, I’d be furious with what seems to be a totally out of touch union operating with an agenda that is not in line with the best interests of its rank and file members.

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