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Advocates Want More Protections For New York Farmworkers

ROCHESTER, NY (WXXI) - Workers rights advocates are planning rallies across the state for a bill that would give farmworkers access to labor protections they don't have.

Right now, in the U.S., federal law states that all workers have the same basic rights -- including overtime pay, the right to unionize, and a day of rest -- except for farmworkers.

West Crosgrove is with Rural and Migrant Ministries. They’re advocating for a state bill that would extend those protections to farmworkers.

"We all need to eat," he said in an interview via phone. "There just needs to be fair and just law that apply to the people who put food on our table."

Steve Ammerman with the New York Farm Bureau said they are working with the advocates. But he cited the strain that overtime cost could put on the farming industry and said, because of their unique nature, farms can’t really afford the financial blow of something like a strike.

"Apples have to be picked in their prime," he said. "Tomatoes have to be picked off the vine when they’re ready to go. Cows have to be milked."

But while both sides argue this is strictly a labor issue, the history is more complicated. Farmworkers were originally excluded from federal worker rights in the 1930s.

Cindy Hahamovitch is a labor history professor at the University of Georgia. She said these laws were enacted at a time when most farmworkers were African-American and disenfranchised under Jim Crow in the South. She said the loophole persists because to this day, farms have strong political power, while farmworkers tend to come from marginalized communities.

"Because they’ve been people of color," she said via phone, "and because they’ve been immigrants and often undocumented immigrants in recent years, they can’t wield a countervailing power."

Ammerman strongly contested that this issue has anything to do with race.

"It’s so frustrating and insulting when we hear that," he said. "I don't think there's a group of people, outside of undocumented workers themselves,  that are pushing harder for immigration reform in this country than our farmers."

He said he’s confident that current regulations in place will keep farmworkers safe from exploitation.