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Slapping the hands that feed us

Migrant farmworkers fight for basic rights


There's a beauty and grace to picking cabbage. On a Brockport farm on a sunny June morning, men and machine move synchronously to harvest the crop.

            The pickers, three men ranging in age from early 30s to mid-40s, are bent over, slowly walking backward as a tractor continually pushes a large crate toward them. In unison, the men place one hand on top of a cabbage while making a clean slice at its base with their machetes. Without breaking stride or standing upright, they toss the cabbages into the crate. This is repeated, without a break, until the crate is filled.

            It's like a ballet. But it's a brutal ballet. Even on this relatively cool morning, the men are sweating profusely.

            "Picking cabbage is the worst," says Juan Carlos, a migrant farmworker. "Out of five people, maybe one can do it. It's like having a nail in your back."

            The tractor only stops when it's time to change crates. The men can then grab a minute or two to stretch, sip some water, and sharpen their machetes. The blades must be kept sharp, so the cabbage can be harvested quickly. "I have cut myself many times," Juan says. "If it's not deep, I keep working. If it's deep, I wait until it heals. Once I had eight stitches and missed four days of work, no more. I needed the money."

            By all accounts, farmwork is demanding labor, requiring long hours in all kinds of weather. It also requires special skills. "One of the myths in society is that these migrant workers are unskilled workers," says George Lamont, an apple farmer in Albion who owns about 500 acres. "That is entirely wrong. These are highly skilled workers. It takes two-to-three years to make a good apple-picker."

            Yet the migrant workers who harvest the bulk of our fruits and vegetables are among the lowest-paid laborers in the US, averaging $10,000 a year. And in New York, the people who harvest our food are subjected to further indignities due to the state's "exclusion laws."

            New York's labor laws guarantee nearly all workers the right to one day of rest each week, overtime pay, and the right to bargain with employers as a collective unit. But under those laws, farmworkers aren't even defined as workers. "The term 'employee,'" the law reads, "shall not include... individuals employed as farm laborers." (The law also excludes, among others, people employed in domestic service and those employed by their parents or spouse.)

            A bill called the Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act would remove these exclusions. In addition to granting farm laborers collective bargaining rights, it would require employers to allow their workers 24 consecutive hours of rest per week. It would also stipulate that farm laborers receive the standard time-and-a-half overtime pay rate for every hour over 120 hours worked during a two-week period.

            The bill has passed the Assembly several times in the past few years, but has never made it to the floor of the Senate for a vote.

            Farmworker advocates don't mince words about the exclusion laws. "It's astounding that in the 21st century, farmworkers are still fighting for rights that other workers have," says former Assemblyman Martin Luster, a Democrat from the southern tier who co-sponsored the bill in the past. "The reforms are so common sense, there's no rational argument to justify the delay."

            Rational or not, however, farmers and lawmakers who oppose the bill have been arguing that its passage would cripple the state's agriculture industry, driving farmers out of business by increasing labor costs, undercutting their competitiveness in the global marketplace, and making them vulnerable to strikes that could leave their harvests to rot and put them out of business.

            Those arguments have stalled the bill in the legislative process, but the bill's backers have reason for optimism this year. Support continues to be strong in the Democrat-controlled Assembly, but this year, several Republican Senators have taken up the cause. A version of the act was introduced in the state Senate this year by Republican Senator Olga Mendez of Harlem (locally, Republican Senator Joe Robach is a co-sponsor). The legislation was referred to the Senate's Labor Committee in late April, but no further action has been taken on it thus far.

            At the time of its referral, sensing that momentum may have shifted their way, farmworkers and their advocates undertook a two-pronged march to Albany from Harlem and Seneca Falls, and staged a rally at the capital urging passage of the act. The marchers covered 330 miles --- a significant distance, but nothing compared to the journey migrants make every year from impoverished, rural areas of Mexico to the green fields of Upstate New York.

Most Americans don't realize that virtually all of our produce is still cultivated and harvested by hand, mostly by migrant workers. There are about 60,000 farmworkers in New York, 40,000 of whom are migrant workers. Almost all farmworkers in the state --- migrant or otherwise --- are Mexican or Mexican-American.

            In a small apartment just outside Brockport, 12 men and one woman await the beginning of planting season. Five dirty, old mattresses line the apartment's dingy main room. Young men --- some as young as 14 --- lounge on them watching a Spanish program on a small TV.

            The apartment has only one bathroom. Its small bedroom is occupied by a young couple, the woman pregnant with the couple's first child. "She will work until she is ready to have the baby," the husband proudly says.

            The workers are initially reluctant to talk about their experiences crossing the Mexican border (and many spoke on condition of anonymity; all names of current workers have been changed to protect their identity). The US restricts the number of immigrants allowed into the country, and most of the people in this room are here illegally. If they are discovered here, they will be sent back to Mexico.

            Because they can't obtain permission to enter the US legally, they undertake a dangerous, expensive journey across the border. These border crossings are arranged and controlled by people known as Coyotes.

            "The Coyotes are like a Mafia," says one former migrant worker. "An American and Mexican Mafia."

            Pablo, the unofficial spokesman of the group in the apartment, says the workers staying there are from different areas in Mexico: Chiapas, Oaxaca, Guererro. This means some of them have traveled 3,500 miles to harvest our produce.

            "It costs about $2,500 to get here," says Isidro, a young man sitting at the kitchen table in the Brockport apartment. That includes the cost of crossing the border and traveling to New York.

            Workers in the rural areas of Mexico, where these people come from, earn about $4 a day, so it's impossible to save enough beforehand for the trip.

            "I had to borrow the money from a rich man in my village to pay the Coyote," says Salvador Solis, a former migrant worker. Solis is now an organizer with CITA (Congreso Independentia Trabajodores Agricolos, or the Congress of Independent Farmworkers, an advocacy group). "Then I had to pay back the person I borrowed from. I borrowed $2,000 and I had to pay back $2,500 or $3,000, I don't remember. It was interest."

            Those who can't borrow the money go into debt either with the Coyotes or with contratistas, the contractors or crew leaders who sometimes hire workers for farmers.

            It cost Victor $2,000 to cross the border and an undetermined amount to travel from the border to Brockport. "I do not know what it cost to get from the border to New York," he says. "The contratista did not tell me. Each week I pay $100, $150 to the contratista. The rest of my money goes to Mexico. That is to pay back my passage across the border, as well as for my family."

            Farmwork tends to be sporadic. A laborer may work 70 hours a week for several consecutive weeks, followed by weeks with little or no work. When there's no work, there's no pay, so it may take workers a year or more to repay their debt. And the high cost of the journey is no guarantee of safety or fair treatment.

            It's estimated that 400 people die each year attempting to enter the US illegally from Mexico. The tragedy discovered last month at a truck stop south of Victoria, Texas, in which 19 migrant workers died while being smuggled in a crowded, overheated tractor-trailer, was remarkable (and deemed newsworthy worldwide) because so many people died in the same horrific situation. But migrant workers die almost every day, alone or in pairs or small bands, drowned in the Rio Grande River or dead from heat exhaustion somewhere in the deserts of the southwest.

            Compounding the dangers, security at the US-Mexican border has tightened since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, forcing people to cross at more remote, and more treacherous, places.

            "It is dangerous," says Daniel, another worker in the apartment. "You can be assaulted by thieves. You cross the desert, where you can die from the heat, from thirst."

            Juan Carlos made it across the border several years ago, and has remained in the US, working. "I went from Chiapas to Florida," he says. "It was six days without food, very little water. I was in Phoenix for three days, living in the garage of the Coyote with 12 others. I was only given a little water. I did not know anything, anybody."

            Mexicans make the journey, in spite of the dangers, because the prospects for work here are better than what they face at home. "The people we encounter are very, very poor," says Donna Spence of Migrant Education (an educational support program for children of migrants) in Brockport. "I can't imagine the conditions they've left to travel that far, cross the border, and do the most difficult labor here."

            It's estimated by the Mexico Solidarity Network that 80 percent of rural Mexicans live in poverty, 60 percent of them in "extreme poverty," which is defined as earning, on average, less than $2 a day.

            Raul is squatting under a tree behind a small house, about 30 miles outside Brockport, that holds eight other workers. He's alone today. The rest have gone to "see someone who knows someone" about getting a "mica": forged papers.

            Raul's story is similar to that of millions of other Mexicans who enter the US illegally. "I came here because there is no work in Mexico," he says. "In Mexico, I worked bringing in firewood, walking maybe three hours a day. I earn about 80 pesos (about $7) a day. I have a wife and four children. My family does not have enough to eat. We eat only a little, sometimes a little corn, some beans."

New York agriculture is big business, a $3 billion-a-year industry, according to Julie Suarez of the New York State Farm Bureau. The Bureau one of the principal opponents of the Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act.

            An industry that large obviously needs a lot of employees, but, given the seasonal nature of farm work, it needs them for only short periods of time. "I don't want a workforce of 100 all year round," says Kathy Martin of Martin Farms, a 3,000-acre operation in Brockport that primarily grows cabbage and squash.

            Lamont, the apple farmer, agrees. "Agriculture doesn't want these people to stay all year if there's not a job," he says. "We want them to come in, do the job, and go back."

            Given the extreme poverty the migrants are escaping, New York farmers generally feel they're doing them a favor by employing them at all. "They're happy with the opportunity," says Lamont. "They're coming from Mexico, where there are very few jobs. People don't understand that these people are making ten times what they're making at home."

            While that's undoubtedly true, farmworker advocates still don't believe the conditions under which workers earn their pay are right or just.

            "[Farm] owners are benefiting from those of us from poor countries who come here to work," says Solis of CITA. "They should not benefit from the poverty of other countries."

            Bill Abom of Rural and Migrant Ministries, another advocacy group, puts it more strongly. "It's like the argument about slavery, that the slaves were happy, that they weren't the ones complaining, it's all these other people who are making trouble," he says. "Just because migrant workers aren't complaining doesn't mean they're happy."

            Conditions in New York's farm fields have only recently begun to approach modern --- some would say humane --- standards.

            For example, in 1996, after two years of legislative wrangling, a bill finally passed requiring drinking water for all farm workers. (Yet, even with the law, water is not always available on New York farms. "I know there are farms that don't provide water," says Barbara Deming of Rural and Migrant Ministries. "I check." Several migrant workers said they'd worked on farms within the last two years where no water was provided. "We did not know it was a law," said one of them.)

            In 1998, advocates scored another victory for farmworkers' basic human rights, when a bill passed requiring that toilets be made available in farm fields. According to advocates, legislators acted only after they learned that fields were being contaminated with human waste.

            Given the difficulty advocates faced securing such basic rights, it's small wonder the effort to pass the Farmworker Fair Labor Practice Act has been an uphill battle.

            Farmers fear that removing the exclusion laws will increase their labor costs, which are already a large percentage of their expenses. Bob King, agricultural specialist with Cornell Cooperative Extension, estimates that labor costs constitute about 45 percent of the expenses of a crop, a figure Lamont also cites.

            Martin, of Martin Farms, estimates her labor costs at 60 percent of her total expenses, and adds, "I might even be low on that."

            Since food prices are set by retailers and food processors, farmers like Martin say they're unable to pass their costs along. "Mostly, we sell wholesale," she says. "If [wholesalers] want cabbage from me, and I say it's ten cents a pound, and they say five cents a pound, I have to decide [whether to] take the five cents or let it rot."

            The globalized food market is also a factor farmers cite in opposing the act. "China and Mexico have very low-cost products, because their labor costs are so low," Martin says. "They can put their products into this country at a price [at which] the American farmer can't even produce his product."

            "With all the foreign stuff coming in, more of the money goes to the middle man and the retailer rather than the farmer and the workers," says Senator Robach. "I don't know how to change that."

            "This is the first year we had to subsidize apple farmers, since so much came in from Australia and China," Robach continues. "That blows my mind, that they could somehow bring it in cheaper from there than we can produce in New York, which is an apple-growing state."

Robach is also a bit bewildered that farmworkers, farmers, and their respective advocates haven't been able to find common ground, as he believes the Fair Practices Act would benefit both groups.

            There's clearly some confusion over the bill's various elements. For example, farmers complain that a mandatory day of rest would be impractical, given the nature of harvesting. "A crop is perishable," says Martin. "If you're picking cherries, the cherries aren't going to wait for that day off, so you're going to get them picked and then take your day off."

            In fact, the bill does not require a mandatory day of rest. It merely stipulates that workers be given the option of taking 24 consecutive hours off. And even if they're given that option, most workers wouldn't take it.

            "There are times [when farmworkers] won't take a day off, because they want to make as much as they can," says Sister Marlena Roeger of Hispanic Ministries. "The bottom line is, they should have the option."

            Victorrio, a farmworker, shrugs when asked about receiving a day off. "It's the nature of farming," he says. "You have to work."

            Martin says that though her workers may have put in a long week, when the peak day comes to harvest a crop, they harvest. "Workers are very good at being aware of that," she says.

            Victorrio is more concerned about the lack of overtime pay. "It isn't fair," he says, that workers in other industries get overtime and farmworkers do not.

            Suarez, of the Farm Bureau, says that if overtime were enacted, farmworkers would lose out in the end. "Farmers can't increase their labor costs," she says. "We would have to cut hourly wage rates." She also says some farmers would hire additional workers, so there would be "more workers working fewer hours."

            "There's no place for overtime in agriculture, absolutely not" Lamont says. "Because of the very high labor input in the apple industry, we are opposed to anything that will increase the wage rate. It's not like you can schedule work in a plant and you can make it 40 hours every week. You have to have flexibility."

            "In industry, 40 hours is a work week," Martin says. "On a farm, it's 80. You can't treat everything equally."

            Actually, according to the act, a standard work week for farm laborers is defined as 60 hours per week (again, overtime would be required for time worked in excess of 120 hours over 14 days).

            A 1995 report by the New York State Senate found that several states, including Florida, California, and Maryland, require that farmworkers receive some form of overtime, and that this had no discernible, negative impact on farmers. The report urged New York farmers to do the same.

            The right to collective bargaining is undoubtedly the most controversial part of the proposed legislation. But to farmworker advocates, it's probably the most important piece of the act, because without it, workers are, as several of them say, "powerless."

            The majority of farmworkers either do not or cannot vote, so in political terms, they have no clout. Most, in fact, don't speak English, and many don't even speak Spanish, but one of several native Mexican languages. Opposing them are farmers who do vote and who belong to the Farm Bureau, which has 32,000 "member families" in New York.

            "What we want is to end each worker negotiating with each farmer," says Aspacio Alcantara of CITA.

            Workers know there's no shortage of poor migrants like them willing to do the same work, so they have practically no leverage in their negotiations with farmers. For that same reason, they are also unlikely to complain about abuse.

            Pablo, the worker living in the crowded apartment with 12 others, did speak up once, and he paid for it. He describes being cursed and pushed by a farmer. "He didn't know I understood English," he says. "I know what he was calling me. I told him it wasn't good to treat me like that."

            Pablo says he was fired for speaking up, and his two brothers also lost their jobs on the same farm, even though they hadn't said anything. None of them had any recourse.

            Lamont questions the objective of collective bargaining. "As growers look at it, it's a way to take something away from them and give it to the workers, and this is a very delicate situation," he says. "Collective bargaining would just completely throw the balance of power off."

            Farmers say that workers already bargain with them in informal groups and, if conditions on a particular farm are bad, they'll "vote with their feet" --- leave to work on another farm.

            Suarez says the Farm Bureau is opposed to collective bargaining "because of the perishability of agricultural products. No other industry is as vulnerable to a strike as are farmers. That's the fear that plays on our members' minds."

            Jim Schmidt of Farmworker Legal Services scoffs at the idea of a strike. "Farmworkers aren't going to strike," he says. "Where's the history of that? Migrant workers come here to work. Their survival is based on earning money."

            A strike would certainly not do anyone any good. "When you have a crop out there, it's to no one's advantage to let it rot," says Martin. "They lose money, we lose money, we're all out of jobs."

            Another finding of the 1995 Senate report: the right to collective bargaining had no negative impact in California, where workers have had the right since 1975. The report goes on to say there had been an increase in production, gross sales, and profits in the state since then.

It's possible that the act will be broken into parts to be voted on separately in the Senate. This may be the most feasible course of action, in terms of getting any of it enacted into law. But some advocates fear that once the more palatable aspects of the act are passed, such as the optional day of rest, they'll never get other, more contentious, rights, such as collective bargaining.

            Republican State Senator George Maziarz, of North Tonawanda, opposes the act, saying it would hurt farmers economically. However, he says, "I think something like a day of rest could be passed, with the support of the Farm Bureau."

            Republican Senator Jim Alesi, of Perinton, also supports the optional day of rest. And he believes that once given the right to bargain collectively, other rights and benefits will follow. "With this ability, they can negotiate things such as overtime pay, workers' compensation, unemployment insurance and much more," he wrote via e-mail.

            The act's fate this year remains unclear. The two people whose support would almost certainly make the act law, Governor George Pataki and Republican Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno, did not return calls requesting their position on the legislation.

            In one sense, the battle over the bill exemplifies two clashing perspectives. "Farmworker advocates tend to approach this with their heart," says Martin, "while farmers approach it like a business."

            And there's the inherent conflict: social concerns versus economics. "When you're looking at the bottom line," says Suarez, "justice seems a little skewed to you."

            In the current situation, says Schmidt of Farmworker Legal Services, "the bottom line is, this is the way a profit can be made --- by the exploitation of a workforce."