ITHACA (New York) VOICE

August 2, 2017

 

'Milked' workers speak out about experiences on New York dairy farms

 

By Anna Lamb

 

ITHACA, N.Y. —  As the dairy industry in Upstate New York has boomed, a recent study has found that basic labor rights have been lost along the way for many immigrant workers. At a forum this week in Ithaca, four dairy workers spoke out about their mistreatment working on farms in the state.

The event was hosted by the First Unitarian society in collaboration with  the Tompkins County Immigrant Rights Coalition, the Midstate COSH, the Tompkins County Workers Center and the Unitarian Church’s Social Justice Council. There, speakers presented data from a recent study on working conditions for immigrant dairy farm workers and spoke about the conditions first hand.

The study, “Milked:  Immigrant Dairy Farmers in New York State”  represents workers who have been taken advantage of in the dairy industry and is based oninterviews conducted in 2014 and 2015 with 88 dairy farm workers across 53 farms in Upstate New York.

One of the study’s authors, Kathleen Sexsmith, who recently received her Ph.D. from Cornell University, said immigrant workers are “overworked and underpaid, (have) risky and unsafe jobs, social isolation and community exclusion.”

Ninety-three percent of the participants were undocumented workers, mostly from Mexico and Guatemala. The majority worked on large farms, and spoke little to no English. Each of them were asked more than 200 questions, all in Spanish.

“There have been other studies that have interviewed immigrant farm workers. Ours is the first one that takes the method of interviewing farm workers without asking the farmer’s permission,” Sexsmith said. “We wanted to make sure the people we were interviewing weren’t being selected to tell one story or another.”

The report is by the the Worker Justice Center of New York and the Workers’ Center of Central New York. Sexsmith worked with four others on the 39-page report, including Carly Fox and Rebecca Fuentes, who are advocates for workers’ rights, Fabiola Ortiz Valdez, a Ph.D. candidate in Syracuse and Gretchen Purser, an assistant professor of sociology.

Former dairy worker Crispin Hernandez recalled grueling 12-hour work days, unsanitary conditions and an accident in which a cow stepped on his hand and he was unable to seek medical care due to his inability to obtain a driver’s license.

After Hernandez said he witnessed an assault by a manager on one of his coworkers, he said he began questioning the rights he had as a farm worker and became connected with the Worker Justice Center of New York and the Workers’ Center of Central New York.

“I didn’t know anything about my rights, the owners of the farm didn’t teach me any of my rights,” he said.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has had little oversight into the well-being of farm workers, according to the report. Farms must employ more than 11 non-family members to qualify for OSHA inspection — which according to the study is only about 18 percent of New York dairy farms.

Two-thirds of workers surveyed report having been injured at least once, if not multiple times, while working on a dairy farm, the study says.

The main causes of injury are the cows and bulls, heavy machinery, chemicals, conditions within the farms (tight spaces and slippery floors and a lack of organized training.

With the help of WCCNY, Hernandez said he tried to educate and organize with his fellow workers to fix the problems on the farm. Hernandez said when the farm owner found out, he called police to get rid of  the WCCNY employee and promptly fired Hernandez and his co-organizer.

Hernandez, backed by the advocacy groups, is currently suing the state of New York for violation of the State Employment Relations Act which bars employers from punishing workers who choose to organize. Hernandez and his legal team claim the act unconstitutionally excludes immigrant workers.

The other three panelists told similar stories. They all worked long hours, for low wages, and were extremely isolated from the greater community due to their inability to drive themselves anywhere — even to the grocery store.

“At the end of the shift we can’t get to the store to get the same food we worked so hard to produce,” farm worker Victor Hernandez said.

During the Q&A, assembly member Barbara Lifton stood to address and support the issue of workers obtaining driver’s licenses. A bill was proposed last May, but never made it to vote.

Other attendees included local farm owners, who after the event stayed to discuss their own business practices.

One of those farm owners was Skip Hardie, of Walnut Ridge Dairy in Lansing. He has employed immigrant workers for the past 18 years. Hardie said in his opinion, the demanding work schedule is at the request of the employees.

“You can always find bad apples and there are bad apples in the dairy farming industry no doubt about it,” he said. “I just want the U.S. public to know that it’s not all that bad. Some of it is but most of it isn’t.”

The authors of the report urged community members to support workers’ rights to improve conditions on dairy farms. Specifically, observing May 1 as a day of action for immigrants rights, reading the full report online, and contacting yogurt and dairy companies to inform them of the conditions on their supplier’s farms

“I hope people leave feeling more informed about the conditions that their milk is being produced under,” Sexsmith said.