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Time To Pass A Farmworker Bill of Rights

Time To Pass A Farmworker Bill of Rights

Many of us take for granted the idea of mandatory overtime, days off, and basic sanitary working environments.  Born of the New Deal, these milestones in labor protection, one would assume, apply to all forms of manual labor.  But they don’t.  In fact, an entire population was purposefully left out of those worker protections from seventy years ago–farmworkers.  Now movement in New York to provide basic labor protections to farm workers is gaining some momentum and civil rights activists hope that momentum will translate into federal protection with the same aims.

Right now the New York Civil Liberties Union and other civil rights groups are pushing for a change in New York labor laws that currently categorically exclude farmworkers from basic rights and protections.  Some of the rights and protections the NYCLU seek include provide for an eight-hour work day for farm laborers, require overtime rates at time-and-a-half, allow for collective bargaining rights, and require the mandatory reporting of work-related injuries, including providing for access to workers’ compensation.  As you can see from these examples, the push is for basic dignity in the workplace.  Nothing more.

The legacy of the exclusion came as much from pressure from the Dixiecrats of the South as from the emerging agribusiness of the 1930′s.  The key piece of labor legislation born of the New Deal– The National Labor Relations Act – was passed only because these workers were categorically and specifically excluded.  Southern Democrats did not want to extend these protections to African-Americans who were at that time the largest population of the farm and domestic labor force.  The emerging agribusiness lobby pointed to the high overhead costs associated with agricultural work as the economic basis for entrenching racial discrimination in the labor movement.  Together they made sure the legislation passed without any protection for or inclusion of farm laborers.

The result of those efforts was that any labor protections for farmworkers was left to individual states to create and enforce.  Predictably the states followed the federal model and wrote these workers out of state labor laws as well.  Their exclusion had predictable results–increased and concentrated poverty, brutal working conditions, and legally sanctioned discrimination for a new generation of laborers who are now mostly Latino.
The hope is that the current administration, with Department of Labor Secretary Hilda Solis at the helm, will help navigate past those historical harms.  Unfortunately it remains an uphill battle.  Entrenched anti-immigration sentiment continues to be a major hurdle, and one that may only grow as he recession lingers.  Other significant labor battles– such as the fight for the passage of the Employee Free Choice Act draw away resources necessary for public outreach and education campaigns.  Finally, the enormity of this country’s financial crisis and its connection to a failed health care system make immigration and labor policy of this nature simply lower on the priority list for the Obama Administration.

However, when we go through widespread salmonella outbreaks and product recalls one can’t help but wonder just how these kinds of protections would help prevent those problems and protect our food source.  Additionally, farm laborers work the hardest, and most thankless jobs in this country, yet those jobs provide our most essential product–food.  As a country we are not even able to measure the increased health costs associated with not providing access to workers’ compensation for workplace injuries, let alone the cost from chronic illness due to pesticide exposure.  Because these workers exist in the shadows, to many Americans they simply do not exist at all.  That has to change.  The health of our food supply, and of our people depends on it. 

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bradleykurtz via Flickr

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