From Field to Table: Ethical Eating and Farmworker Rights
December 4, 2012 11:47 am
The local food movement has cultivated a class of thousands of consumers who take an avid interest in the provenance of their food; an entire movement has sprung up around organic, local and cruelty-free offerings. But workers’ rights are conspicuously absent from farm-to-table chatter.
The pioneering efforts of Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta led to the first collective bargaining agreements between farmers and their workers, yet the failed Humane Treatment for Farmworkers Act, which sought to provide adequate shade and water to farmworkers, evidenced the battle for farmworker rights is far from over.
Aurora Almendral took a close look at rights for immigrant farm workers in New York State. New York farmworkers do not have collective bargaining rights or access to overtime pay, a day of rest or disability pay, and now a growing class of activists are attempting to make the connection between ethical eating and the ethical treatment of workers.
Almendral’s reporting aired on New York City public radio affiliate WNYC prior to Thanksgiving. She reported on Antonio Valeriano, an Oaxacan who works up to 16-hours a day on a farm in the Hudson Valley:
Valeriano admitted the work is hard, “and we almost never rest,” but he isn’t complaining. “Like I said, we don’t consider this work, we don’t think of it that way. We like doing this.” Giving a tour of the grounds and the packing house across the driveway, he’s clearly proud of what he does.
Gerardo Gutiérrez, an attorney working with the Rural Migrant Ministry in Poughkeepsie, is campaigning to remove the exclusions that keep New York farm workers from having the same rights as all other New York State workers. “This is an issue that is not only a human rights issue, it’s a labor issue, it’s a moral issue. No matter how you slice it, this issue is a no-brainer because we need to give these people some rights, ” he said.
Gutierrez says farm workers work 60 to 80 hours, sometimes seven days a week. The farm workers are often happy to work the extra hours but the no-overtime pay provision means that they don’t get time and a half after 40 hours. He points out that growers are capitalizing on labor that’s not being fully compensated.
Opposition to the Farmworker Fair Labor Practices Act, which would allow workers the overtime, worker compensation protection and freedom of association given to ordinary workers under the New York State Labor Relations Act, has encountered opposition to the New York Farm Bureau. The bureau, which represents farmers’ interest, wants to focus on immigration rights rather than labor protections they say are inappropriate for the migrant workforce. In fact, growers are benefiting from the surplus of cheap labor and worried about the premiums that will be incurred by an adequately compensated workforce.
Almendral spoke with grower John Glebocki:
Unlike the Farm Bureau, Glebocki supports the idea of overtime pay for his workers. He just doesn’t see how it can be economically viable.
“It all comes down to what the grower is getting for his product,” he said. “You know if we were getting tremendous profit for what we sell, I’m sure we’d be able to offer more. But we can’t.”
In reality, many consumers in nearby New York City have proved a demand for local produce and cruelty-free farming methods that add a hefty premium to basic foods. The demand for these products has already altered farming practices. If conscientious eaters also understand farmworker justice as a cause worth paying a bit more for (the Rural and Migrant Ministry states that a plurality of New Yorkers support equal rights for farmworkers) perhaps real change can be achieved.
Image from here