While Cornell’s Moviemento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers protested Saturday against what it alleged to be Taco Bell’s exploitation of tomato pickers in Florida, the DeWitt Historical Society of Tompkins County opened an exhibit on farm workers much closer to home.
“Coming Up on the Season: Migrant Farmworkers in the Northeast” is a traveling exhibit sponsored by the Cornell Migrant Program that focuses on the migrant workers who come to New York State every year for seasonal harvesting apples, onions, and other fruits and vegetables.
The Cornell Migrant program was started in the late 1960s after an investigation of Cornell’s treatment of its farm workers.
“Cornell used to hire migrant workers to work on the Cohn farm [a farm previously owned by the University]. The students and faculty demanded improvements. The University Senate passed a resolution demanding that [the University] start a program,” said Prof. Herbert J. Engman, human development and family studies and director of the Cornell Migrant Program.
The program spent about five years working on the exhibit.
“We hired professionals who learned from the ground up. They saw the whole situation through fresh eyes. I think it’s well balanced. I did not try to influence the content. I just checked for accuracy,” Engman said.
The exhibit itself is a multimedia presentation of artifacts, pictures, video clips, and quotes. All of the information is offered both in English and Spanish.
On Saturday the museum showed “Harvest of Shame,” a documentary made in 1960 that was “the first media attention ever given to this issue,” said Greg Potter, the assistant director of the Historical Society.
The film followed migrant workers from their homes in Bell Grave, Florida to upstate New York as they went from farm to farm.
A talk and discussion with Engman followed the movie.
According to the New York State Department of Labor, around 47,000 migrant farmworkers and their families travel to New York every year. Due to what Engman calls the “systematic discrimination against farmworkers by legislators,” farmworkers are exempt from certain New York State labor laws, including those that guarantee disability insurance, a day of rest, overtime pay, and collective bargaining rights.
Engman explained that these problems are exacerbated by the racial composition of workforce. 81 percent of farmworkers in America were not born here, and 77 percent are of Mexican origin.
“One of the fundamental problems is that many Latino farmworkers don’t have legal papers. When you don’t have papers, you can’t stand up for your rights; you can’t bargain with your employer,” Engman said.
He added that there are two pending lawsuits of slavery in New York related to migrant farmworkers.
Engman emphasized, however, that the plight of the farmworker is not necessarily his employer’s fault.
“We have a system of migrant farm work in the United States that traps people. Farmers are often trapped in the same system,” Engman said.
Archived article by Freda Ready