Upstate immigrant dairy farm workers report injuries and intimidation

Photo credit: Patrick Lohmann/Syracuse.com

From Syracuse.com:

by Patrick Lohmann

Immigrant dairy farm workers who spoke to researchers in Upstate New York reported hazardous working conditions, wage theft and intimidation, according to findings published in a report by workers' rights groups and Syracuse University professors.

Researchers interviewed 88 immigrant workers at 53 Upstate dairy farms in 2014 and 2015. They did so without the farm owners' knowledge and granted the workers, most of whom came to the country illegally, anonymity for fear of being deported, the authors said.

Nearly half of the workers said they were bullied or intimidated by their bosses, and two-thirds said they'd suffered at least one injury. 

The authors announced their findings in a news conference Thursday at the Workers' Center of Central New York in Syracuse. They did so as a lawsuit and state legislation are pending that would give farmworkers the right to unionize in New York.

The report also comes as Upstate undergoes a dairy boom. The state's dairy farms produced nearly 15 billion pounds of milk in 2016, up about 1 billion pounds from the year before, according to federal statistics. 

That boom is coming at the expense of immigrant workers hired to staff the "semi-automated, fast-paced, stressful, and exhausting" positions created to support the industry, the authors wrote. 

"The study brings to life the voices of a rarely heard population that is vital but invisible to most New Yorkers," said Gretchen Purser, one of the study's authors and sociology professor at Syracuse University. "Like all agriculture workers in New York state, dairy farmers are excluded from many of the basic rights and protections that most of us take for granted, including the right to organize, the right to a day of rest and the right to overtime pay." 

Four out of five workers interviewed worked on a farm with fewer than 11 employees who are not relatives of the owners. As a result, the farm was not big enough to be subject to inspections of the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, even if a worker is injured or killed, according to the authors. 

Of the 88 surveyed, 93 percent came to the United States illegally. Most came from Mexico and the second-biggest group from Honduras. Farm owners operate on a "don't ask, don't tell" basis regarding their immigration status with their employees, said co-author Carly Fox.

The interviews happened at 13 Central New York farms, three Eastern New York farms, 30 Western New York farms and seven Northern New York farms. 

In addition to the reports of danger and harassment, the study -- called "Milked: Immigrant Dairy Farmworkers in New York State" -- found the following:

  • Twenty-eight percent reported going without wages they deserved or paying for their own personal protective equipment, which authors described as "wage theft"
  • Sixty-two percent said they felt American workers were treated better than they were
  • Fifty-eight percent reported bug infestations in the homes provided by employers
  • Sixty-two percent felt isolated from their communities. The study's authors, as a result, repeated calls for allowing the issuance of driver's licenses for those who came to America illegally.
  • Workers said they earned $9 an hour, which was a dollar above the minimum wage at the time. Workers' wages will continue to rise along with those in the rest of the state, thanks to the state's newly passed minimum wage increase.

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