At NY State fair dairy workers call for fair working conditions

Maria E. Gutierrez |

“Sharing the bounty and pride of NY” was the slogan of this summer’s New York State Fair, held in Syracuse from Aug. 22 to Sept. 2. The slogan referred to the abundance of agricultural and dairy goods produced in the state. But some dairy workers I met were wondering, why the great bounty of New York wasn’t shared with them? Why are these working conditions so poor and inhumane?

The abuses and exploitation of low-wage and immigrant workers is well documented. I do not cry easily, but when I visited these workers, I couldn’t help but well up with tears when I saw outrageous examples of abuse to immigrants working on dairy farms in upstate New York. At these dairy farms, animals are treated like machines, but workers are also treated so inhumanely.

After a 12-hour workday, many workers sleep on the floor of a trailer that houses 10-12 workers. During those long shifts some workers make room for a 15-minute lunch break because even in the few cases where they are told that they have 30 minutes for lunch, the pace of their work doesn’t permit much time to feed themselves because they must feed or milk the animals. They rest on the floor or in shared beds. Workers are paid $7.25 per hour, and after they are fired or leave the workplace, employers tell them to come back to collect their final paycheck (which often goes unpaid because of the limited time off, long distances, and lack of transportation the workers have).

DairyWhile visitors went to fair attractions, I gave a training on workplace health and safety to a small group of dairy workers. Many of them feared that they would get in trouble for wanting to learn about their rights, so we did the training in secret. Workers made room for the training in the little time they had off.

Workers shared stories about how they work among hazards from animals, machines, equipment, wet and slippery surfaces, and extreme weather conditions. They receive no training on workplace safety and there is no buddy system. Also, workers are forced to buy their own personal protective equipment such as rubber boots and gloves. Workers are told that injuries and accidents are part of the job, and that they should “toughen it out”. 

We cannot accept unwritten job descriptions and work practices that normalize workplace injuries. We cannot accept that injured workers are often left alone until a worker from the next shift finds them, badly injured or even dead under equipment or animal hooves.

We must work together to change the frequent causes of injuries: long shifts, exhaustion, sleep deprivation, lack of training, faulty machinery and equipment, and lack of personal protective equipment.

So, if we want to talk about "sharing pride and bounty", we must demand that farm owners treat their workers with dignity, pay them fair wages, and provide humane working and living conditions to their workers.

Photo Courtesy of Central New York Area Labor Federation, AFL-CIO