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It's time to protect farmworkers' rights in NYS

Irrigation wheels water a sod farm in Mattituck

Irrigation wheels water a sod farm in Mattituck during a dry spell, May 20, 2015. Photo Credit: Randee Daddona

If you live and work in New York City, you would be forgiven if you did not know New York State is an agricultural powerhouse.

Nearly a quarter of the state's total land area is dedicated to some type of farming-grapes on Long Island, apples along the Hudson Valley and cabbage in counties just south of Lake Ontario. In 2012, the total value of agricultural products in the state was nearly $6 billion. That's something all New Yorkers can be proud of.

Unfortunately, in farms across the state, too many men and women work for poverty wages without the most basic labor protections, toiling the fields for more than 80 hours per week with no day of rest, no workers' compensation, no overtime, and no right to organize or negotiate collective bargaining agreements. In short, this inequality is a depraved holdover from the Jim Crow era when Dixiecrats in Congress refused to include the primarily African-American farm labor force in President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal fair labor laws. For nearly 80 years Congress has failed to rectify this historic injustice. Shamefully, so has New York State.

The most effective way to ensure that farmworkers have the basic protections afforded to other workers in our state is through the legislative process. State Sen. Adriano Espaillat (D-Manhattan) and Assemb. Cathy Nolan (D-Queens) have again introduced the NYS Farmworker Fair Labor Practices Act, which would extend basic labor rights (day of rest, overtime, collective bargaining and others) to farmworkers from Long Island to upstate New York. The legislation would immediately improve the lives of about 80,000 to 100,000 farm laborers who are excluded from basic labor law protections under state and federal law.

This legislation has found broad support in the Assembly, which has passed the bill repeatedly. Unfortunately, this vital legislation has been held hostage by the State Senate -- specifically by a small number of senators beholden to special interests -- for over a decade, having never even allowed a vote. The bill has 27 sponsors and we believe the 32 votes needed to pass are within reach if an up-and-down vote in the Senate is allowed.

The man who has the power and obligation to give farmworkers their day in Albany is Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan (R-East Northport). Flanagan has previously expressed support for this legislation, and the Senate must bring the measure to a vote before this year's legislative session ends next week.

New York State has a long history of leading the nation in protecting workers' rights. After all, New York created the nation's first workman's compensation insurance program. We're confident once New Yorkers hear about the deplorable conditions farmworkers face, they will agree it's past time to end this injustice and ensure our state's workers are treated fairly and with dignity.

Jose Calderon is president of the Hispanic Federation, a non-profit advocacy group.


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