Wyandanch rally focuses on rights for farm workers

Worker and immigrant-rights activists rally to call to

Worker and immigrant-rights activists rally to call to the attention of their state legislators a bill protecting the rights of immigrant farm workers that has been lingering at the state level for years in Wyandanch, on May 22, 2014. (Credit: Ed Betz)

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Immigrant workers at farms throughout New York should have the same labor protections as other employees in the state, including a day of rest, overtime pay and the ability to organize, advocates said Thursday in calling for reforms.

About 30 people rallied at Wyandanch's Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal Roman Catholic Church to say Long Island legislators should back the Farm Workers Fair Labor Practices Act, a bill that hasn't made headway in the Senate for years.

They marched holding signs with messages such as "Equality and Respect" and "Long Island Grapes of Shame."

"We are here to stand with farmworkers in their fight for dignity and respect," said Nathan Berger, Long Island outreach coordinator for the nonprofit Rural & Migrant Ministry, a statewide advocacy group.

Their push is resisted by agricultural industry leaders, who say they offer salaries above the minimum and good working conditions to the laborers they need. Farm owners prefer self-regulation for an industry subject to weather and price variation.

"We want fairness, and it's a conversation being argued by people who have nothing in the game," said Joe Gergela, director of the Long Island Farm Bureau, which represents a $250 million industry employing more than 5,000 people in the region.

He noted that his group has called for immigration reform so its workers can have better living conditions and said he'd be willing to "sit down with the true representatives of the people who need help" to see what farmers could do.

The New York Farm Bureau, an industry group, said the state already is "among the top . . . in the country when it comes to labor costs."

Sen. Phil Boyle (R-Bay Shore), one of the legislators who protesters are lobbying for support, said he would back labor laws so farmworkers are "not treated as second-class citizens," but the bill would have to be "a compromise that protects both farmworkers and farmers."

Anita Halasz, director of the advocacy group Long Island Jobs With Justice, said labor law gaps foster a system "where the employer has so much power over the employees" who depend on bosses for housing and transportation.

Advocates also said they were hoping to get more citizens engaged in the discussion.

"People forget that Long Island has farms," Halasz said. "They are all the way at the end of Long Island, where most people don't venture to go. And when they do go, they only look at the actual apple. They don't think about who picked that apple."

Heriberto González, a Mexican immigrant who worked on farms upstate, said many workers are paid $7.25 an hour for backbreaking labor that could extend to 70 hours a week.

"We get housing that is not adequate where we have to live, without heat or air conditioning" and "where an employer can come and get us anytime they need us to go to work," González, 24, said in Spanish. "We just want equality as workers and as human beings."

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