November 25, 2002

Forum Raises Farm Worker Rights

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A forum organized by the newly formed Cornell Farm Worker Advocacy Coalition was held last Thursday evening in Uris Hall. A series of speakers ranging from local migrant farm workers to the director of the Cornell Migrant Program spoke to an audience of about 40 people about important issues currently facing farm workers in upstate New York.

The panel of six stressed the lack of human and labor rights afforded to migrant farm workers in the state and how students could help gain fundamental rights for the workers.

This was one of the first events of the new student organization, started to get Cornell students more involved in helping local farm workers.

Migrant farm workers, of which there are approximately 47,000 in New York alone, often migrate or perform seasonal labor on different kinds of farms, ranging from harvesting fruit such as apples, grapes and cherries, to work on dairy farms. While the National Labor Relations Act of 1995 entitles most workers to many fundamental labor rights, farm workers are exempt from this legislation and therefore are exempt from most labor laws considered standard for other industries in the U.S.

The panel explained and illustrated many examples of such laws, including the right to workmen’s compensation and sick leave, minimum wage and freedom from harassment.

A highlight of the program were three farm workers, Irlain Theodore, Aleus Hilaire and Augustin Dumerci, who spoke about their experiences during the past 15 to 20 years. Each told a similar story of coming to the United States from the Caribbean and the various jobs they had worked as a farm worker since that time. While each had been in the industry for a number of years, none had received any more substantial increase in payment for work and experience.

They all spoke of working in conditions where managing farmers withheld payment for long periods or infinitely, and without water or light. While some of the workers expressed their enjoyment of farm work in general, they all hoped that and actively encouraged their children to succeed enough to be employed in other industries.

Because conditions are so poor for farm workers, and real wages have actually decreased over the past thirty years, Hilaire asked the audience who would harvest their food in the future, implying that conditions were so bad that soon everyone would leave the industry.

The efforts of organizations such as the United Farm Workers and Rural and Migrant Ministries have been able to lobby legislatures on behalf of farm workers and to organize farm workers themselves to increase their power. However, the latter has remained quite daunting because the workers are not even given the right to organize or unionize.

The panel stressed the importance of empowering farm workers themselves, rather than continuously advocating for them.

“Farmworkers are the ones leading the charge; we’re helping them along the way.” said Bill Abom of Rural and Migrant Ministries.

The idea for the new student groupcame last year from several students and Herb Engman, director of the Cornell Migrant Program, an outreach program which began in 1971 as the Agricultural Manpower Project, part of the department of human development in the College of Human Ecology.

Engman spoke extensively about many of the local issues affecting farm workers as well as systems in which Cornell students and faculty have worked on behalf of local farm workers in the past.

During the latter part of the program, Engman and members of the Rural and Migrant Ministry as well as some audience members talked about the potential help that students could give by lobbying the state legislature, doing research and creating a knowledge base about farm worker issues for students.

Several of the student founders have engaged in independent work during the school year or summer through local organizations. Rebecca Bixby, president of Cornell Farm Worker Advocacy Coalition, and Pilar McKay worked on a field interview project this summer, involving interviewing migrant workers across N.Y. about sanitary condition across the state.

Alyson Greenlee, another organizer of the Cornell Farm Worker Advocacy Coalition, worked for Rural and Migrant Ministries this summer.

“Before working [at the Rural and Migrant Ministries], I had no idea that this issue existed, because farm workers are totally hidden from everyone. And even in school, you don’t learn that they don’t have the same rights as other workers,” Greene said. “Even in ILR, we spent maybe one day learning about how farm workers are exempt from most labor laws.”

Discussion between the audience and the panel veered towards the immense structural causes of farm worker impoverishment and lack of rights.

While they are being oppressed by farmers, many of the farmers are not making large profits at all and are in turn oppressed by the distributors and supermarkets who sell the food. “There’s an incredible variation, and it’s not based on need, it’s based on production,” Engman said. “The biggest earners are the truckers, processors and grocery stores.”

Bixby said that the struggle is “definitely something that Cornell students can and should be involved with, in the way that it relates to ongoing policy changes regarding immigration and documentation”

Archived article by Aliza Wasserman