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Legislation would provide basic rights for farmworkers

Farmworkers in New York, and most other states, have a raw deal. The State Legislature is now considering a bill to reform an intolerable lack of legal protection. It should approve the bill, which Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo also supports.

Kerry Kennedy, president of the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice & Human Rights – named for her late father – is a leader in the fight for reform in Albany. She explains the problem this way:

In the 1930s, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt was pushing for workers rights, southern Dixiecrats balked at giving equal footing to African-Americans. They insisted on carving out of the law’s protections domestic help, farmworkers and day laborers – then largely African-American. Congress and FDR went along and, to this day, federal law punishes farmworkers. New York State law repeats that discrimination.

Congress shows no signs of wanting to rectify this historic injustice. That makes it a state issue, Kerry says, noting that California reformed its laws 40 years ago and has a thriving agricultural economy.

Sen. Timothy Kennedy, D-Buffalo, has sponsored legislation to extend basic human rights to those workers. The Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act would ensure one day of rest each week, require fair compensation for overtime, prohibit paying less than minimum wage to underage workers and expand the state sanitary code to include all housing offered to migrant farm laborers. It would also provide collective bargaining rights to farm laborers.

The measure has cleared the State Assembly, and while Sen. Kennedy believes its prospects in the Senate are good, its fate remains uncertain. It deserves support. The costs are minor – the law would drive up the cost of milk by less than a penny a quart, supporters estimate – but even if the cost were many times that amount, the bill deserves passage. This is a bedrock question of fairness.

Consider the reaction if legislators were to choose another class of worker – nurses, for example – and propose changing the law to prohibit collective bargaining, eliminate the need to provide a day off and drop overtime pay. The bill would be denounced as an unfair attack on a particular subset of workers. It is similarly unfair to shackle farmworkers to abusive labor laws.

The bill would mainly affect employees of very large farms in the state – big businesses – rather than small, family owned farms, 75 percent of which don’t employ farmworkers. The other 25 percent of family owned farms tend to treat their workers well already, Sen. Kennedy said.

Estimates are that 50 to 75 percent of these workers are undocumented, so the issue is inevitably bound up in the federal immigration debate now raging on Capitol Hill. Some, no doubt, would argue that those undocumented workers deserve no rights, but laws already provide them with certain protections and, perhaps more to the point, they are doing work that many Americans decline to do.

But again, this is less about money and legalities than it is about basic human fairness. These workers, who are no doubt fearful of standing up for themselves, deserve the basic protections that this law would provide. New York should pass it. And Washington should not consider itself off the hook. For this nation to continue to support Jim Crow laws such as this is a travesty.