This must be New York’s final harvest of shame: Let us finally protect exploited farmworkers

By Kerry Kennedy

This holiday season as we sit down with loved ones, it is important to remember those whose labor produced the wonderful food on our Thanksgiving dinner table. There’s near-slavery in New York, and it’ll be served up across the state today in turkey, stuffing, pumpkin pie and corn bread.

Thanksgiving is a time to join family and friends, reflect on the past year and express gratitude for all the blessings in our lives. We are fueled in this ritual self-examination by traditional holiday fare: Turkey smothered in gravy, sweet potatoes, cranberry sauce, winter squash, creamed onions, peas, carrots, corn and more. But while these foods comfort me, I am horrified by the haunting stories of the women and men whose seemingly endless toil provides us such a wonderful and colorful bounty.

Farmworkers in New York State – who deliver to us so many of the foods we eat – labor every day without the basic rights that are afforded all other workers. They are denied the right to a day of rest per week and to overtime pay for extra work hours. They are excluded from disability and unemployment insurance coverage. And they can be legally fired for organizing a union.

The history of denying farmworkers basic rights stretches back to the Jim Crow era, when Dixiecrats in Congress refused to include the primarily African-American farm labor force in the New Deal labor regime – but the the tragic results of historical racism and political expediency are alive and kicking today.

New York farmworkers live in overcrowded barracks, work incredibly long hours (many work 12- to 14-hour days, seven days a week) for poverty wages, and suffer frequent repetitive-stress and other serious injuries. When their bodies inevitably break under the stress of the work, they are shown the door — kicked out of employer-provided housing.

Farmworkers’ daily lives are subject to the whims of their employers – a power dynamic that often results in extreme abuse and exploitation. On a recent visit with farmworkers in, of all places, Liberty, N.Y., every female farmworker I spoke with told me she had been sexually assaulted by her boss.

We must put a stop to this.

Fortunately, there is reason for hope. Under the leadership of Rural & Migrant Ministry, many thousands in upstate churches and synagogues have marched side by side with the state’s farmworkers, seeking to honor the dignity and equal worth of all people. They have been joined in this long journey by allies in the labor movement and youth organizations. This year, I am proud to report that the RFK Center for Justice and Human Rights joined the campaign in a big way, and we are on the verge of major progress.

In June, the Assembly passed the Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act, which would finally offer a measure of justice to farmworkers by extending them basic rights and protections. Gov. Paterson has repeatedly pledged to sign the bill. All that is left to do is for Senate Democratic Conference Leader John Sampson to allow the bill to the Senate floor for a vote, where it will surely pass.

Tomorrow marks the 49th anniversary of Edward R. Murrow’s shocking documentary, “Harvest of Shame,” which depicted the horrible living and working conditions, conditions that legally persist today.

Forty-nine Thanksgiving meals, and still farmworkers are denied a seat at the table. Forty-nine years of pumpkin pie, and still farmworkers are denied a piece. Sen. Sampson, let the 50th anniversary never come. Before the year is out, bring the Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act to a vote. For that we will be eternally thankful.

Support the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice & Human Rights.

One response to “This must be New York’s final harvest of shame: Let us finally protect exploited farmworkers

  1. This is very important but you must make sure in doing this, that you protect local farmers who are under dire threat of being eliminated. If that happens, the farm workers are at the mercy of corporate farming interests which are brutal to farm workers. You might consider getting farm workers and small farmers together to push for affordable land for small farming (and protection of small farms) so the farm workers might end up with something of their own (and farmers might have protection from USDA efforts to get rid of them). The focus should be on protecting farming (farmers and farm workers, both).

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