hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


Editorial October 2019



Is this the best way to help farm workers?



One of the biggest changes to agriculture in our region over the past couple of decades is the shift to reliance on foreign-born laborers.

At most of the large dairy farms that still survive across eastern New York and Vermont, immigrant workers, mainly from Mexico and Central America, now do the vast majority of the hard work that’s required to keep milk flowing to regional processing facilities. If these workers were to disappear, the flow of milk across the Northeast would slow to a trickle.

And although no one wants to get too specific, given the current political climate, it’s a safe bet that many – likely most – of these workers are undocumented.

It’s against this backdrop that state legislators in New York moved earlier this year to end agriculture’s longstanding exemption from most of the state’s labor laws.

As our cover story this month details, starting Jan. 1, farm workers will be granted a series of rights that the rest of the labor force has enjoyed for decades, including a weekly day off, workers’ compensation benefits, and the ability to organize unions. And in a change that likely will have the biggest immediate impact, farm workers will be entitled to overtime pay -- though only after logging 60 hours in a workweek, compared with the 40-hour threshold for other hourly workers.

Supporters of these changes say agriculture’s reliance on immigrant labor has created an environment in which farm workers, many of whom could face the threat of being deported, are ripe for exploitation and abuse. And there have indeed been some cases in which unscrupulous employers appear to have taken advantage of the situation.
But there’s another level at which our hyper-partisan political era has helped to create this problem – and now has spurred a legislative solution that’s more cumbersome, for both farmers and farm workers, than it needs to be. As is so often the case these days, there are partisans on both sides whose first instinct is to fit everything into their own side’s narrative about all that’s wrong with the world.

On the left, there are those who put farmers into the category of business owners, whom they see as invariably greedy and exploitative, when in fact most farmers and business owners work hard for their own economic survival and want to do well by their employees.
And on the right, there is large contingent that casts illegal immigration as a terrible economic burden, when in fact undocumented workers are keeping our economy afloat. If all of these workers could be rounded up and deported, as some of the anti-immigrant crowd still advocate, all kinds of businesses that depend on their labor – dairy farms, restaurants, stone quarries, landscaping companies and more – would probably just close. That outcome would be even more likely in a region like ours where the population is stagnant and graying.

So if we’re really concerned about preventing exploitation of farm workers, the obvious first step would be grant some legal status to the immigrant workers who are already here – so that they can move on freely to another job if they feel they’re being abused.
That would be a much simpler and more effective way to wipe out any workplace exploitation than relying on the state Department of Labor to start monitoring and policing every farm.


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