Those of us who care about our food have learned where it comes from. We’ve met the farmers, picked our own apples, and shop at local farmers markets. We think about the high cost of cheap food in terms of residue pesticides in our bodies, and how much gasoline it takes to ship produce thousands of miles. And we’ve learned about the suffering of animals raised on factory farms, where animal cruelty laws don’t apply.
But most of us have never thought to ask: Who is picking our food? What conditions do they work under?
Rural Migrant Ministry, a Poughkeepsie-based, statewide nondenominational organization dedicated to serving rural farmworkers, has been asking these questions and uncovering the disturbing answers since 1981. Although it is funded primarily by churches, RMM’s mission is not to preach the gospel.
“We have to preach through our actions,” says Special Projects Coordinator Jane Konitz. “We don’t give handouts or run food pantries. We’ve been working for over 30 years to change labor laws.”
That’s because farmworkers in New York still lack what everyone else considers to be fundamental rights. They don’t have the right to one day of rest per week. They work long hours, but don’t have the right to overtime pay. And they don’t have the right to organize and bargain collectively.
“If you are a farmworker, you don’t have the protections that most employees have,” says Gerardo Gutierrez, Jr., RMM’s Justice for Farmworkers campaign coordinator and legal counsel. The problem dates back to the 1930s, when New Deal legislation guaranteed minimum wages and a maximum work week of 44 hours for American workers. But farmworkers were — and still are — exempt from these laws.
There is a growing movement to change that. When RMM held its Sowing Seeds of Justice symposium last April, its featured speaker was influential food writer and New York Times restaurant critic Ruth Reichl.
“We agonize over what we are putting into our bodies while remaining blind to the problems of farmworkers,” Reichl told the group. “This has to change. If we are ever going to have a food system that is really sustainable, it cannot be done on the backs of the people who are picking our food.”
So who are the invisible people who help put food on our tables? Gutierrez says the majority are Latino, originally from Mexico and Central America. They are a “mixed bag” of U.S. citizens, undocumented immigrants, and guest workers in the U.S. on special visas.
While there are a few “year-rounders,” a large percentage of workers are here only during the April-through-October growing season. They follow the crops, picking oranges in Florida, peaches in Georgia, and eventually coming to New York — where the agricultural harvest includes berries, apples, grapes, and more.
During harvest season, they work long hours — without overtime. “When it comes to harvesting, they work around the clock,” says Gutierrez. “There is a short window for picking grapes and berries, so you work seven days a week. When one of your children gets ill, what do you do? You take a day off. If you get along with your boss, everything is fine. But if he doesn’t like you, there goes your job. And if you don’t have a job, you don’t have a house.” The farmers provide housing and food (and deduct farmworker pay for the cost), but three or four families often live together in one trailer.
Ironically, working conditions are hardest for those who help produce foie gras, a Valley delicacy prized by chefs across the country. Foie gras is produced by force-feeding young Moulard ducks so that their liver becomes fatty and enlarged, creating a rich meat that is one of the costliest items on restaurant menus. The force-feeding process has garnered a firestorm of criticism over the last few years, and foie gras has even been outlawed in California. But few are aware of how the duck-worker lives.
The ducks have to be fed every four hours for 21 days. “The duck-worker forms a bond with the ducks, so it has to be the same person every time,” says Gutierrez. Workers are unable to get a full night’s sleep; and when one group of ducks is slaughtered, another group is brought in. “You can’t take a break,” he says.
The RMM’s Ruth Faircloth knows firsthand the hardships farmworkers face. Her parents were migrant workers; from a young age, she worked as the caretaker for as many as 20 children. “I lost my opportunity to be a child,” she says of the experience. She also recalls being socially isolated in school, and excluded from lessons. Although the federal Migrant Education Program has created schools for migratory children, “they don’t put much time into these kids,” Faircloth says, “because the attitude is ‘you’re not going anywhere, anyway.’ There’s not much difference from the 1970s to now; we are still traveling the same roads.”
While conditions for farmworkers remain difficult, there have been victories over the years. In New York, workers are entitled to receive minimum wage, and they won the right to have water and sanitation facilities as they labor in the fields.
But passage of the big prize — the Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act — has been elusive. The bill would grant farmworkers collective bargaining rights, workers’ compensation, overtime pay and unemployment benefits; establish an eight-hour work day, with at least 24 hours of rest a week; and require that the sanitary code apply to all farm and food processing migrant worker housing.
In 2010 the bill was passed by the state assembly and made it to the senate floor, where it failed to pass by only a few votes. Today, RMM believes the bill has the votes to pass, but it is stuck in committee.
The bill’s biggest opponent is the New York Farm Bureau, which represents farmer interests. While the bureau supports a day of rest, it says paying overtime would be too costly. Rainy weather can stop picking for days at a time; farmers need to be able to make that up on sunny days without paying overtime. “If labor becomes too expensive, farmers will look at other alternatives, like finding additional help to keep from paying overtime,” says spokesman Steve Ammerman. The group also opposes collective bargaining. “Agriculture is a time-sensitive business,” Ammerman says. “Vegetables have to be picked when they’re ready. A work stoppage could wipe out a farmer’s income for a year.”
Gutierrez says the collective bargaining provision applies only to large farms with sales over $650,000 per year. “This bill is not out to get mom and pops,” he says. “And if that’s the concern, there are ways to deal with that legislatively.” For instance, small farmers were given a tax rebate to offset the cost of implementing minimum wage.
Part of RMM’s mission is to create a brighter future for the children of farmworkers through programs like the Youth Economic Group (YEG) in Liberty. YEG transforms 15 underprivileged youth into co-owners of “Basement Bags,” a business which markets fair-trade shopping bags.
High school students are interviewed by the business’s current co-owners (mostly other students), and hired as apprentices. For six months, the newcomers learn every aspect of the business, from silk-screening to accounting. When their apprenticeship ends, they become co-owners who are paid minimum wage for the time they spend working.
“They are wonderful, amazing kids who are getting paid to learn,” says Jesse Houff, who works directly with the kids. “They are not just flipping burgers. They are learning how to run a business and important life skills, like how to support yourself, how to work with people who are difficult, how to get the community involved.”
The bags are sold at Liberty’s Floyd and Bobo’s Bakery and Snack Place, at the Bethel Woods Harvest Festival in the fall, and at www.ruralmigrantministry.org/youtheconomicgroup.html. They cost $35-$40 and feature slogans — like “Justice for Farmworkers” — that support RMM’s cause.
That might be the perfect way to start a conversation with your farmer about the people who pick the crops. Learn more about how you can support local farmworkers here.