On May 10, 2016, the New York Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit against the state of New York seeking farm worker rights.
This is the latest salvo in support of the Democrat-backed (farm workers’) Bill of Rights, which seeks to allow farm workers to unionize or get overtime. (The bill has stalled in the Republican-led Senate, though Governor Andrew Cuomo said he supports the workers-rights efforts and would not defend the suit.)
The fight is ongoing, as farm workers aren’t provided the same protections as other workers. “There are certain laws that might protect farm workers on the books, but they’re never enforced,” says Ann Lopez, director of the Center for Farm Worker Families in Felton, Calif. “Farm workers are basically exempt from national labor-relations laws and fair-labor standards.”
One farm worker named in the New York suit, Crispin Hernandez, is quoted as saying, “They treat us like slaves, worse than the cows. Our bosses do not see us as human beings.”
This treatment is the norm, says Lopez. Her non-profit was founded in 1996 to raise awareness of farm worker injustices. “The people who do the work get on a virtual conveyor belt and they work until they fall off, are thrown away and a new set comes in,” Lopez says. “They’re considered discardable human beings.”
In 2014, California’s farms and ranches received about $54 billion in farming revenue. There are a lot of real people behind that number, and most of them are undocumented workers from Mexico, at least 75 percent according to Lopez. In Santa Cruz County, that number is 83 percent. “They are in poverty, subjected chronically to pesticides, have a very poor diet, they’re overworked and have an average life expectancy of 49 years,” she says. “Sixty to 80 percent of women farm workers are sexually abused, or they have to engage in sex with a foreman to get the job in the first place. They make between $13,000 and $17,000 a year and have no health insurance.”
Immigrant workers rarely assert any legal rights because they don’t speak English and don’t understand the laws. They often fear punishment, including being fired.
Organic is not enough
Swanton Berry Farm in California’s central valley follows a different path. James Cochran, Swanton’s owner, farms organically and uses unionized labor. He believes Swanton to be the only farm in the country with an employee stock-ownership plan, which transfers 16 percent ownership to the workers. “I not only think farm workers should be paid a lot more than they are, I also think they should have some share in ownership,” he asserts.
When he started his farm in 1998, he says he, “held his breath and stepped into the unknown” to follow his spiritual and social ideals. “My whole point in farming was that there’s no point in protecting the soil and the environment without doing the same or better for the people,” he says. “To me, just being organic was not enough.”
Cochran raised wages and promised benefits before he actually had the money to do it. “Nobody in their right mind would raise wages when income is flat,” he says with a laugh and a shrug in his voice, “so what I’ve done is taken the idea that my job is to get the money necessary to pay these benefits and wages. To convince the customer that that’s what it costs, which is not always easy.”
Cochran says only about five percent of his customers understand that his higher prices reflect an additional $3 an hour in union benefits on top of a base hourly rate ranging from $10.50– $15. He’s achieved his goals by focusing on the quality of his produce and primarily selling direct-to-consumer. Currently, Cochran employs 20 workers with up to eight more part-timers during summer. He attends nine farmers markets weekly and has u-pick and farm-stand sales.
Unionization, he says, is akin to taking on a business partner that can help figure things out and improve productivity. Furthermore, there’s a major psychological benefit for the members. “The union gives them a sense of being a professional farm worker in a very real sense, and that is something that very few of them feel,” he says. “It’s not just about the money — it’s about not being ashamed to tell your kids you’re a farm worker.”
Lauren Ornelas, founder of Food Empowerment Project in Cotati, Calif., promotes veganism as a way to lessen suffering in non-human animals, and views the treatment of farm workers as a national disgrace. “Farm workers feed everybody,” she says. “Everybody in this country, unless they grow all their own food, relies on farm workers who are treated without dignity.”
She hears the concerns of the farm worker families they help. “They worry about their kids,” she says. “They want their kids to be able to go to school and not end up in the fields like they are. They come here so their kids can have a better life and succeed.”
Ornelas’s FEP holds a school-supplies drive for children of farm workers. Lopez’s organization maintains two sheds in Watsonville stocked with expensive items such as toilet paper and diapers. They also have a tutoring program emphasizing education.
Beyond supporting organizations like these, consumers can help the situation by purchasing organic produce. “Organic doesn’t necessarily mean the farm workers are being treated any better,” says Ornelas, “but it means they’re not exposed to chemicals.”
Both organizations support boycotts, such as the call by the Florida-based Coalition of Immokalee Workers to boycott Wendy’s fast-food chain and Publix grocery stores over their refusal to join the Fair Food Program, which promotes a model for partnership among farmers, farm workers and retail food companies, ensuring humane wages and working conditions for the workers. The union Families United for Justice promotes a boycott of Driscoll’s, a California supplier of berries, and some of the farms it works with.
Cochran, of course, knows that farms can help by paying fair wages and unionizing. “We’re profitable,” he says. “We’re not nearly as profitable as farms who don’t have union contracts, but it can be done. You don’t make as much money, but you sleep well at night, and that’s a big thing.”