Farmworker rights movement gaining momentum

Consumer and food companies becoming increasingly interested in farm employment practices.

Recent increased activity by worker advocacy groups could possibly be the beginning of a worker rights movement comparable to the animal rights movement, Thomas Maloney, senior extension associate at Cornell University Maloney, recently told attendees at a World Dairy Expo seminar relating to agricultural workforce trends. If this happens, the call for transparency surrounding farm employment practices will increase, he added.

While advocacy activity varies by state, Maloney said in New York alone, there are groups devoted specifically to workers rights, such as Migrant Justice, Worker Justice Center of Central New York and Worker Center for New York. Advocacy activities related to agriculture include protests at farms and agribusinesses, marches, farm monitoring, attending agricultural meetings and even bringing lawsuits, he said.

“This is not brand new, but we’re seeing a spike in it at the moment,” Maloney said.

Maloney noted that the animal rights movement resulted in farms having to spend more time on how animals are treated, and “now, we’re going to have to tell the story about how we treat workers. We need to think about wages, benefits and working conditions and if they are up to snuff. Housing is a very important part of what the advocates talk about it.”

Additionally, farmers are going to have to pay more attention to labor law compliance, he said.

Consumer and food companies taking notice

The second part of increasing transparency is related to increased consumer and food company interest in farm employment practices, Maloney said, adding, “Consumers are taking an interest in production practices and what’s going on at farms.”

For example, he recently saw an apple display at Whole Foods with a sign asking: “Do you care about farmworker welfare?” The sign included a rating system on worker treatment. “Someone is making a determination of whether farmworker treatment was good, better, best on that farm,” he said.

Maloney said the question now is whether this is the beginning of a much bigger trend — and people he has talked to in the food industry have told him that it is.

He asked, “At what point does this work its way back to the farm and production practices?”

Maloney referenced a campaign by a group called the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) that resulted in a historic agreement in 2010 between CIW and the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange to implement the "Fair Food Code of Conduct" on 90% of the state’s tomato farms, affecting approximately 30,000 acres of production and tens of thousands of workers. Additionally, workers were given a penny-per-pound wage increase.

The dialogue today has changed from that, according to Maloney. “For 30 years, we had labor advocates acting on their own; now, they’ve joined up with the food companies. That’s a more powerful team,” he explained.

Maloney said housing and wages are key issues for these advocacy groups. Additionally, they are also concerned about farmworkers not getting a day off each week.

However, this past summer, Cornell surveyed 250 Hispanic workers in New York and found that only six reported working seven days a week.

“Advocacy groups have things that they pick out that are unacceptable. I have a feeling that, going forward, seven days a week is not going to fly,” Maloney suggested.

Wage increases

“We are seeing a number of indications of wage increases, government oversight and regulation,” Maloney said.

The U.S. Department of Labor has been very active on farms nationally, and more states are advocating for collective bargaining rights for farmworkers, as well as overtime pay. “On a state-by-state basis, I don’t see this going away. Some states already have this,” he said.

According to Maloney, it’s only a matter of time before bills similar to the recent California overtime bill will be passed in other states, as well.

“We need to spend more time telling our story to policy-makers on immigration reform, (as well as) to consumer and to worker advocates,” he said.

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