June 2013
May 24, 2013

FARM WORKERS' STORIES: abused, gored, overworked

Author: Liza Frenette
Source: NYSUT United
farmworker activism
Caption: From left: Assemblywoman Cathy Nolan; United Farm Workers co-founder Dolores Huerta; Sen. Neil Breslin; Assemblywoman Gabriela Rosa; and human rights defender Librada Paz advocate passage of the Farm Workers Fair Labor Practices Act. Photo by El-Wise Noisette.

"I'm a mother. You need this time with your kids," implored Librada Paz, pleading for a day off a week for New York's downtrodden farm workers. "Otherwise they grow up on the streets."

Paz brought her 16-month-old son to a rally and press conference in May supporting passage of the Farm Workers Fair Labor Practices Act. The child, Axel, shares the color of his mother's eyes; the color of rich, fertile earth - deep, dark brown.

"I have been abused in so many ways," Paz said suddenly, her voice cracking as she cried. A former farm worker, Paz used to cut cabbages and onions all day as part of her labor in the fields, which began when she was 15. She traveled all over the country - going wherever the fruits and vegetables needed tending in the cycle of their growth. Living conditions of farm workers are most often abysmal - unclean, unsafe, unhealthy and crowded. Women are particularly subject to abuse.

Paz, who is now a council member with Rural and Migrant Ministry, joined her colleagues to speak with senators and urge them to pass the fair labor act, which has already passed the Assembly. It would give farm workers one day off a week, unemployment benefits, overtime pay and the right to bargain collectively.

The act, which NYSUT supports, would amend the public health law, in relation to the sanitary code to all farm and food processing labor camps for migrant workers; and the workers compensation law, in relation to the eligibility of farm laborers for workers compensation benefits.

Injured dairy farm worker Eliseo Sanchez could really have used the act for protection. He worked on a dairy farm in Geneseo as a cow pusher, moving cows into a narrow space.

"Behind me there were 250 cows and more, and behind them were the bulls," he said. One day, he was gored by a bull.

"Then I fell back and hit my head," he said. "When I woke up I had a bull on top of me." He was later fired from his job, he said. "Where I was working I was living. When he fired me, he threw me out of the house."

Sanchez now lives in the only homeless shelter for farm workers in upstate New York, La Casa, in Sodus, his translator Alina Diaz said.

"This is a civil rights issue," said NYSUT Secretary-Treasurer Lee Cutler, who oversees social justice for the statewide union. "While our state senators bicker among themselves, they each go home to running water and comfort. They each get a day of rest and they each have a voice at work. All of these are lacking in the life of a migrant worker in New York state." In November, Cutler visited cabbage farms outside of Rochester. "The conditions are awful .... almost sub-human. The lack of medical care, the lack of recreation, education and basic rights is obvious."

Civil rights activist Dolores Huerta, who co-founded the Farm Workers Union with Cesar Chavez, flew from California to attend the rally.

"It's ridiculous," she said, noting that California's 1.5 million farm workers have the basic rights that New York's laborers are asking for, and agriculture has continued to survive. "There's no reason why (New York workers) shouldn't have these rights. It's a human right."

Jack Banning, owner of Black Sheep Hill farm in Dutchess County, raises sheep for fleece and meat, as well as pigs. The farm has several acres of garden vegetables and about 100 laying hens for eggs. "I don't know a small farmer against this bill," he said.

For more information on the Farm Workers Fair Labor Practices Act, and to encourage your senator to support the bill, visit www.nysut.org.