Advocates hopeful for farmworker bill's approval - Catholic Courier

Advocates hopeful for farmworker bill’s approval

Proponents of legislation that would give farmworkers the same rights as other workers say they believe this is the year the bill will be approved by the New York state Legislature and signed into law by Gov. David Paterson.
 
The Farmworker Fair Labor Practices Act has passed the state Assembly for each of the past three years, but has not received the necessary votes for passage in the state Senate. Last month, hundreds of farmworker advocates from throughout the state gathered in Albany to lobby for passage of the bill, which would establish an eight-hour work day and give farmworkers the rights to overtime pay, a day of rest and collective bargaining.
 
With 28 Senate sponsors and more than 40 senators pledging their support, the bill now has a clear majority in the Senate, said Jordan Wells, who coordinates the Justice for Farmworkers Campaign of Rural & Migrant Ministry. More than 130 faith groups and religious communities across the state have endorsed the bill’s passage.
 
"Senate Majority Leader Malcolm Smith can bring an end to these shameful exclusions (of farmworkers) by bringing the bill to the floor of the Senate for a vote," Wells remarked. "In the meantime, we are encouraging people of good conscience across New York to call Sen. Smith and ask him to bring the Farmworker Fair Labor Practices Act before the Senate for a vote. Inside Albany, we will be working with the governor, legislators, faith and labor allies to send a clear message that the time is now (to approve the bill)."
 
Sen. Bill Perkins, who introduced the legislation in February, hosted a May 15 discussion about the ramifications of the bill with two farmworkers from Wayne County and activists from the Rochester area. A video of that meeting may be viewed at www.nysenate.gov/video/2009/may/15/perkins-report-51209-farmworkers-fair-labor-practices.
 
Juan Luis, one of the workers who participated in the discussion, said that he has friends who have been injured on the job. These injured workers did not receive any disability benefits, Juan Luis said, and they also were forced by the farmers who employed them to sign documents absolving the farmers of liability for their injuries.
 
The Fair Labor Practices Act would offer workers more just working conditions, no matter their residency status, activists said.
 
"We are important to this country," said Juan Luis…"We feed the whole world."
 
Librada Paz, director of Rural & Migrant Ministry’s Western New York office in Brockport, said that such struggles highlight the reason she and migrant workers were so gratified by the support of hundreds of people who attended Farmworker Advocacy Day May 12 to lobby for passage of the state farmworker-rights legislation.
 
"If this passes, it’s a step in the right direction," she said."Some farmworkers never get out of what they’re doing. I encouraged them to come out and see how many people are supporting you. … They felt really proud."
 
The New York State Catholic Conference was among those lending support to Farmworker Advocacy Day, which included a march and a rally, as well as a speech by Kerry Kennedy, founder of the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Human Rights. Officials from the conference, which is the public-policy arm of New York’s Catholic bishops, noted that farming is a vital industry in New York that depends on farmworkers.
 
"The bishops of New York state are sensitive to the challenges facing farm families, but at the same time our Catholic social teaching reminds us that all people have the right to fair working conditions and payment for our labors," said a statement from Richard E. Barnes, the executive director of the Catholic conference. "As a society, we have a responsibility for finding a solution that both protects the rights and dignity of the worker and the livelihood of the farmer."
 
Yet the New York Farm Bureau said that the livelihood of farmers would be adversely affected by passage of this bill. According to Farm Bureau President Dean Norton, farming families do treat their employees fairly and respectfully.
 
In a press release, Norton said that the farmworkers who are employed by the thousands of family farms that make up the state Farm Bureau’s membership receive wages higher than the state’s minimum wage, as well as free housing, transportation, and child care for migrant and seasonal workers.
 
"Labor laws within the past 30 years have been strengthened considerably," he said. "Farms in fact are subject to constant regulation by a bevy of federal, state and local agencies."
 
During the May 12 rally — which also featured a mariachi band, prayer vigil, folkloric dancers and street theater — Kennedy said that not all workers receive those benefits claimed by the Farm Bureau. Such workers, she said, are subject to wages below poverty levels and poor health protections because of a lack of legal protection.
 
Paz said that supporters of the farmworker-rights bill have accepted the fact that some of the bill’s provisions may be lost if last-minute changes are negotiated in order to ensure the legislation’s passage. Even so, she said that supporters hope workers at least will gain the right to overtime pay and a day of rest. During the May 12 event, Paz and Wells met with state representatives as well as Gov. Paterson, who gave them his support, Paz added.
 
EDITOR’S NOTE: To support the Farmworker Fair Labor Practices Act, visit the New York Catholic Conference’s Web site, www.nyscatholic.org, and click on the "Take Action Now" button to find a draft message of support for the legislation. For more information on the Justice for Farmworkers Campaign, visit www.justiceforfarmworkers.org.
 
Advocates also hope for immigration reform
 
In addition to lobbying for farmworker rights, migrant workers and their advocates also continue to hope for some form of comprehensive federal immigration reform this year. President Barack Obama was scheduled to meet in early June with members of Congress to discuss potential immigration legislation.
 
Librada Paz, director of Rural & Migrant Ministry’s Western New York office in Brockport, said that the New York region continues to see the negative impact of current immigration policies as fewer workers are showing up this spring to find seasonal jobs than in past years.
 
According to one local activist, the consequences of current immigration policy goes well beyond the fields, as evidenced by recent activity in the Sodus area by the U.S. Border Patrol — including officers driving cruisers in the Village of Sodus with their lights flashing. Such patrols instilled fear among migrant workers, forcing cancellation of an intercultural dinner that had been planned for May 9, said Dr. John "Lory" Ghertner, who oversees a group called Church Watch. The group formed last summer to enable migrant workers to attend Mass at Church of the Epiphany in Sodus.
 
"As a result of that activity in the village, I was afraid to bring the whole community together for a social event … (for) fear that someone would have problems as a result of my poor judgment," Ghertner said of his decision to cancel the dinner.
 

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