(Ed. note: This is the second of a three-part series looking at the impact the Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act, a bill currently being considered in both houses of the New York State Legislature, could have on the area’s farmworkers.)

The Democrats have long been a party concerned with social justice and civil rights issues. However, many critics of the proposed farm labor bill look at it as strictly political in nature. They say it is legislation that seems like it’s providing some rights and dignity in the best interests of the farmworkers, but in reality doesn’t, and is something only to tout as a perceived accomplishment during upcoming elections.

The majority of the co-signers of the bill are from New York City and downstate. The bill is sponsored by state Sen. Jessica Ramos, who chairs the Senate Labor Committee. In Ramos’ district there are fewer than a half-dozen farms averaging 4 acres. Ramos seems to want to put forth the narrative from decades ago that farmworkers are being mistreated.

Local state Sen. Pam Helming, R-54 of Canandaigua, attended a roundtable discussion about the farmworker labor bill last week at an Ontario County farm. Joining her were Sen. Robert Ortt of North Tonawanda, representatives from the farm industry, farm owners, farmworkers and others interested in the proposed Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act.

Helming said she was “very troubled” by the bill’s potential impact on farmers and their workers.

“It will do the opposite of what it is supposed to do,” she said. “Workers will get frustrated (with fewer hours), and jobs will be lost. They will look elsewhere for opportunities.”

Upstate politicians from both parties are aware of the pitfalls surrounding the bill and are fighting against its passage.

Assemblyman Phil Palmesano noted in a recent editorial in the Finger Lakes Times: “Legislators from New York City want affordable milk, fruits, vegetables and other agricultural products for their constituents, yet they don’t understand the crippling cost burdens they’re continuing to force on farm families. Their bill simply ignores the realities of farming that are common knowledge for people living in rural communities. This is a very dangerous bill which will result in very negative and damaging consequences to our family farms, the agricultural industry and our entire state as a whole.”

Rural & Migrant Ministries, based in Poughkeepsie, does not agree with Palmesano’s stance.

The Farmworkers Labor Practices Act is a continuation of a bill that was introduced over 20 years ago and has resurfaced, in part, due to Rural & Migrant Ministries’ advocacy. The organization has a worker education center in Lyons where Gabriela Quintanilla is the Western New York coordinator. The ministry was integral in helping get mandated clean water and bathrooms for workers in the field.

Quintanilla pointed to the moral issues at stake with the FFLPA.

“The workers deserve mandatory overtime and days off,” she said. “They deserve equal treatment and protection under our state labor laws.”

She noted there are still places where female workers are being sexually harassed. Also, at some farms, there is limited training.

She noted that Ramos visited Sodus for half a day and spoke with some farmworkers there.

Last month, farmworkers in New York gained the right to organize and collectively bargain, according to a state appeals court ruling that said an exclusion for farmworkers in state labor law is unconstitutional.

Grow NY Farms is a group committed to letting New Yorkers know the “values, contributions and benefits” farmers and the agricultural community bring to the state. They feel if the FFLPA is enacted in its current form it will force farms to:

• Make significant cuts in employee hours, reducing weekly wages;

• Encounter new challenges that may threaten harvests or care for animals;

• Experience a drop in employment and activity due to staff leaving the state to pursue other agricultural jobs that allow them to work the number of hours they want or need.

Unfortunately, many of the representatives in Albany think they know what’s best, but when there is an upstate/downstate divide as there is now — and the side in control is so disconnected from farming — it is bad news for the industry and, ultimately, for the consumer too.

TOMORROW: Part 3 — Often silent, farmworkers are now speaking out


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