From LancasterFarming.com, Deborah Jeanne Sergeant New York Correspondent, 18 Jun 2011.
ALBANY, N.Y. — A handful of workers were among those attending a rally Tuesday organized to give farm laborers an opportunity to publicly air their desire for better working conditions. The event, at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Albany, was hosted by the Justice for Farmworkers Campaign, a program of the advocacy group Rural and Migrant Ministry. A vigil outside the state capitol followed.
“Farmworkers are tired of being told that New York cannot give them justice, and they are frustrated that their voices are largely ignored during discussion about the Farmworker Fair Labor Practices Act,” said a statement recently released by Justice for Farmworkers. The Farmworker Fair Labor Practices Act was legislation first introduced in February 2009 by Democratic Sens. George Onorato, Neil Breslin, Joseph Addabbo Jr. and Diane Savino. It was amended in January 2010, but failed to make it out of the Senate Agriculture Commitee.
A similar bill was reintroduced later in 2010 by Onorato, but again failed to pass. The legislation has been reintroduced this year in both the state Assembly and Senate. The law would grant farmworkers one day of rest every week, overtime pay, unemployment insurance and other provisions from which agricultural businesses are typically exempt. Martha Schultz, communications coordinator for the Labor-Religion Coalition of New York State, believes that the bill would have a chance of passing with the current Senate. “The hearing held March 1, 2010, excluded farm workers,” she said. “It was a hearing that was sponsored by the Agriculture Committee of the Senate. Darrell Aubertine was the chair. The speakers were invited by the committee and farm workers were not allowed to participate. Farmworker testimony was not part of the hearing.” “(Tuesday’s event) includes people who wanted a chance to speak last year but could not,” Schultz said. “I believe that it will help the public to understand for including farmworkers in labor law.”
Julie Suarez, director of public policy for New York Farm Bureau, contends that no one was excluded when the legislators considered the farmworker bill. “Real farmworkers, union leaders and religious advocates had plenty of time to be heard in the legislative hearings process,” Suarez said. New York State Farm Bureau expressed strong opposition to the bill. “The state Senate last year voted the bill down, recognizing that farming is a seasonal business and as such cannot fit into a one-size-fits-all labor law approach more suitable for producing widgets in factories,” Suarez said. “This is simply a stunt, designed to disguise the advocates’ inability to actually have real, working farmworkers join with them in their quest to end farming in New York as we know it.”
Chris Pawelski, owner of Pawelski Farms, is a fourth-generation onion farmer working 108 acres in Goshen. He hires four seasonal farmworkers and has long opposed Justice for Farmworkers. He said farmworkers have had ample opportunity to speak but since none responded, Justice for Farmworkers had to pay the few that have participated in panels and rallies.
Peter Mares, who performs outreach work for Catholic Charities of Wayne County, has been working with Justice for Farmworkers, and said none of the participants in Tuesday’s event was paid. “They all give up time to be here,” he said. “In order for these men and women to be here, they aren’t paid, so it’s a big sacrifice.”
The Rev. Richard Witt, director of Rural and Migrant Ministry, has previously stated that participants were paid a $50 stipend to help cover their lost work wages. Witt views resurrecting interest in the bill as a moral obligation. “This moment in history provides us with the opportunity to stand tall and do what is right,” Witt said. “It is a moment that, once realized, will enable us to serve as a beacon for generations to come. Farmworkers are excluded from basic human rights and they have asked why do we exclude them, what is it that makes them different that we would deny them equality?” Witt blames the economics of farming, but views that as an excuse. “Now we must find a different answer,” he said. “Let us as a state that takes pride on how we treat one another, also treat farmworkers equally and give them the justice they, and we, so rightfully desire.”
Pawelski contends that Justice for Farmworkers has made “outrageous allegations that couldn’t be substantiated,” such as farm owners ignoring workers being raped on their farms. Pawelski added that the groups working with Justice for Farmworkers “do not represent farmworkers. Farmworkers don’t attend their meetings. They’re not made up of farmworkers and they’re not members of their board. They’re window dressings. Farmworkers don’t speak at their own board meetings. It’s all to get attention for Witt and his crew.”
Four workers from Mexico — Jorge, Francisco, Javier and Reynaldo — spoke in a phone interview with Lancaster Farming shortly before they were to talk at the Justice for Farmworkers event. Speaking through Mares, who translated (except for Reynaldo, who speaks English), the men said that they each work on different farms in New York and enjoy their experiences, though they did not want to share their last names. “I like working there,” Jorge said. “I’ve always enjoyed working in the fields. I grew up in the fields and farming industry. It’s something I do with a lot of love.” Francisco and Javier, who pick strawberries and prune peach trees, and Reynaldo, who picks apples, agreed that they like their work, too. When asked if they felt their employers were equitable, only Jorge offered a negative response. “The last place I worked I liked my boss. He was good to me,” he said. “At the most recent place, I’ve had trouble. There were 35-foot hoses I was forced to drag around and I couldn’t really do it. “He would tell me it’s something I’d have to do or he would give me a paper saying I’m fired,” he added. “I continued to do it and I was injured. I hurt my back and I was out of work for over a year.” Jorge said he hoped after speaking at the rally that his listeners “will have compassion, that someone will hear us. We have suffered so much. There are workers who don’t have documents to be in this country and we are discriminated against.”