Fruits of their labor bruised by working conditions

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Before making it to your table, apples, beans and other fruits and vegetables were growing from the earth, nourished by sun and rain, and picked and harvested by farmworkers in fields and orchards.  The milk on your cereal came from cows that were cleaned and milked by workers on dairy farms.

But these hardworking employees are excluded from labor laws of New York, and so they have no right to a day off: they work seven days a week. They do not receive overtime pay. Children labor as farmworkers. Women farmworkers are often sexually abused and assaulted. They are not allowed to unionize. Housing is often deplorable.

The working conditions of these farmworkers is “a dark kept secret in this state,” said Assemblyman Karim Camara, D-Brooklyn, chair of the Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic and Asian Legislative Caucus. “They are steps away from being indentured servants.”

He introduced a group of activists, lawmakers, religious leaders, union leaders and representatives from groups includingRural and Migrant Ministry and New York Civil Liberties Union today at the Legislative Office Building to urge passage of the Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act. It is sponsored by Assemblywoman Cathy Nolan (D-Queens) and Senator Adriano Espaillat (D-New York).

“It’s just about basic rights and dignity,” Nolan said. “It’s basic, baseline protections that others have enjoyed since passage of the Wagner Act.” The assemblywoman has been working for years to secure rights for beleaguered farmworkers, and she said this Act needs to be passed now. “We have to have it. Have to have it. Have to have it.”

“We fight these conditions in other countries,” said NYSUT executive vice president Andy Pallotta, who just finished testifying on behalf of state support for  public higher education before hurrying around the corner to the farmworkers’ rights press conference. “Most people would not believe what’s going on in their own backyards.”

Kerry Kennedy, founder of the Robert F. Kennedy Center for  Justice and Human Rights, joined today’s team to support passage of the act. She said her father visited farmworkers outside of Rochester in the 1960s and found conditions then that “horrified” him. Today’s conditions are still “unacceptable.”  The Center has made farmworkers rights an ongoing concern, and last year presented its human rights award to Librada Paz, Mexican-American farmworkers rights activist.

Reverend Richard Witt of the Rural and Migrant Ministry is a familiar face at farmworker events. He has helped create service-learning and civic programs for the children of farmworkers, including partnerships with local colleges to provide scholarship funds. He reminds people that a bushel of apples weights 48 pounds, and apple pickers typically pick up 168 bushels in a workday.

The conditions farmworkers toil in is “desperate and inhumane” said Assemblyman Nick Perry (D-Brooklyn).

“It’s shameful that the state of New York would have these conditions,” said Assemblyman Louis Sepulvede (D-Bronx) , noting the Empire State prides itself on protecting those who cannot advocate for themselves.

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