New York’s Farmworker Fair Labor Practices Act: A Look at Both Sides
This past August 3rd, 2010, the New York State Senate struck down New York’s Farmworker Fair Labor Practices Act, legislation that would improve existing labor conditions for New York farmworkers. Those in support of the bill hoped to ultimately give farmworkers equal protection and rights covered by the National Labor Relations Act of 1938, covering collective bargaining rights, one optional day of rest a week, 8-hour workdays, overtime pay for more than 40 hours/week, and unemployment insurance coverage. With 28 in favor and 31 against the bill, the fight for justice in New York farm fields was close, but not close enough.
According to labor advocates, the fight for fair agricultural working conditions in New York began 15 years ago when a group of farmworkers, while testifying in a number of legislative hearings, became aware of their exclusion from basic labor laws. With the support of labor advocacy, student, and/or religious organizations such as the Rural & Migrant Ministry, these workers went on to found the Farmworker Justice Campaign in the hopes of gaining fair labor standards for all farmworkers. In response to campaign pressure, New York enacted many commendable provisions and protections for its farmworkers, such as stricter sanitary codes for farmworker housing, stricter sanitation and drinking water requirements in its fields, worker’s compensation coverage by all but small farms for farmworkers, a farmworker minimum wage that matches the federal minimum wage, and a human trafficking statute.
Since 1999, however, the state has failed to pass any further legislation to address agricultural labor conditions despite continued pressure from labor interests. According to Richard Witt, Executive Director of the Rural & Migrant Ministry, “It’s an issue of justice, fairness and equality… There needs to be equality in the law.” Labor interests believe farmworkers laboring in one of the most dangerous and physically taxing industries deserve equal protection and rights as all workers. By providing these benefits to New York farmworkers, those who cultivate our daily food will be protected from existing and potential exploitation, neglect and injustice.
On the other hand, the New York Farm Bureau and many New York farmers stand in stark opposition to the New York Farmworker Fair Labor Practices Act. Although many claim to care for farmworker rights, they believe this bill, also referred to as the “Farm Death Bill”, will force small, family farms out of business. In the words of Assemblyman Cliff Crouch, “Bills like the ‘Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act’ will raise the cost of farming in New York State, forcing farmers to close their family farms, killing jobs and making local produce harder to find for New York families.” With an estimated cost of $200 million annually, the bill will not only hurt agriculture but also the statewide economy as a whole.
For farmers and the New York Farm Bureau, universal overtime pay, unemployment insurance coverage, and collective bargaining rights are the most controversial components of the Act. Overtime pay alone could increase labor costs by 15%-25%, an increase many farmers would not be able to afford. Apart from cost alone, many believe overtime pay should not apply to the agricultural industry at all. An industry whose inherent nature implies seasonal periods of either intensive work or little to no work requires overtime work from both farmers and their employees due to the demands of seasonal farming, not the oppressive demands of an employer. Furthermore, farmers in all likelihood will develop employment or farm practice strategies to avoid the added costs of overtime pay, such as hiring more workers but limiting each worker’s hours/week, mechanizing production, or downsizing their farm to rely on family labor. For temporary and permanent farmworkers who either need a job or want more than 40 hours/week, the overtime pay requirement could actually hurt instead of help them.
Unemployment insurance coverage for farmworkers would also significantly increase labor costs, paperwork and compliance activities for farms, according to the NY Farm Bureau. Small farms that have previously been exempt from paying for coverage would certainly face financial hardship due to this added cost, potentially costing more than the short-term employment of the worker. In addition, many of the covered migrant and seasonal workers would not receive the intended benefits. Universal worker coverage will actually act as a tax on farmers as most migrant or seasonal workers, who are typically employed for short periods of time, will not be eligible to collect unemployment insurance.
Opponents to the Farmworker Fair Labor Practices Act also believe the right to collectively bargain will irreparably hurt NY farms. With unionization rights, workers can make unwarranted demands, threaten to strike during harvesting or planting time, and potentially put a farm out of business by doing so. Additionally, the logistical aspects of collective bargaining are inherently flawed for migrant and seasonal farmworkers. In general, unionization will be time consuming, costly and impractical for migrant or seasonal workers who come and go with the season. New York’s “closed shop” requirement would also disadvantage seasonal or migrant workers who, without having voted for their representative union, would involuntarily have to pay membership dues to be employed by any farmer.
In response to these arguments, labor interests such as the Rural & Migrant Ministry point out that the Bureau has merely repeated the same stories of financial woe and ruin from the 1990’s when the Bureau tried to prevent housing sanitation, field sanitation and water requirements, and farmworker minimum wage reform. At the time, the Bureau claimed that small farms would not be able to foot the bill and the state would see a significant loss in production. Although the state has seen a high rate of farm foreclosure and decreased productivity, labor interests suggest that small farms more so face financial hardship and foreclosure due to the corporatization of agriculture than due to increased labor costs. In fact, equal rights for farmworkers would help level the playing field between agribusiness and the “family farmer”. By increasing labor costs for large farms that dump markets with cheap products subsidized by a large, cheap labor force, small family farms that the New York Bureau claims to support will actually have a better competitive edge.
Despite this never-ending debate of equality vs. economic capability, reforms were drawn up for the New York Farmworker Fair Labor Practices Act in order to address some of the Bureau’s concerns. In December of 2009 through a series of meetings, farm and labor interests made significant changes to the bill, including:
- changing the standard workday and workweek from 8 to 10 hours per day and from 40 to 60 hours per week, respectively, with the weekly workweek dropping to 55 hours in 2013
- applying collective bargaining rights only to farms with gross sales greater than $650,000 during the previous calendar year instead of all farms, providing for conflict resolution, and placing contingencies on strike or lock out actions
- excluding farmers’ obligation to pay unemployment taxes on H-2A workers.
Although labor advocates considered these concessions a compromise, the Bureau
continued to oppose the Act. In Richard Witt’s opinion, “We have made concessions in the past and yet the Farm Bureau, who says they want to help farmworkers, does not propose or support any legislation to protect them.” He believes that the Bureau falsely uses the guise of the “family farm” to protect the interests of large, corporate farms who depend upon the current system of cheap labor for a comparative advantage.
It was his use of the word “system”, however, that made me question whether the debate is truly addressing the heart of the issue. Instead of single-mindedly focusing on legislation that addresses labor conditions, maybe labor interests and small farm interests should look towards creating systematic change to the overall food system in order to protect the interests of both farmers and farmworkers. For example, one farmer opposed to the Farm Bill stated, “We are price takers, not price makers” and as such, cannot be expected to take on these expenses at current prices. If so, existing and future legislation shouldn’t expect farmers to take on the entire cost of improving labor conditions. Instead, the increased cost of fair labor should be distributed along the food chain of production, processing, and consumption, alleviating the financial burden for farmers and making all food consumers responsible for fair agricultural labor. Until legislation is drawn up that includes both fair labor conditions and systematic reform to price setting for food products, New York should continue to protect small farmers by exempting them from some of the added labor costs included in the Act. This compromise would significantly improve working conditions on large farms where the majority of farmworkers are employed while simultaneously maintaining economic opportunity for small farms to grow and prosper in an increasingly competitive and global market.