Farm Workers Bill: A Matter of Justice

Posted on May 7, 2019 by Catholic Charities Admin  |  Share

Not Special Rights, Just Human Rights

Farm workers, largely immigrants, are the pickers and plowers behind New York State’s multi-billion-dollar dairy, vegetable and wine industry. Yet the Fair Labor Standards Act and National Labor Relations Act enacted in the 1930s continues to exclude them.  Similar to immigrants’ lives made infamous by Upton Sinclair’s 1906 novel, the Jungle, farmworkers still lack the right to organize, to a fixed workday, to overtime pay or to many safety protections in this dangerous industry. 

Catholic Charities NY advocates for farm workers, joining the NYS Catholic Conference in support of a farmworker rights bill through its more than two decades of consideration by the state legislature.  Check out these excerpts from Shannon Kelly’s testimony supporting the Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act on at a legislative hearing held May 2, 2019 in Sullivan County.

By Shannon Kelly

Chief Operating Officer, Catholic Charities of Orange, Sullivan and Ulster

I speak on behalf of our regional agency, as well as for Catholic Charities agencies across New York State, and in solidarity with the New York State Catholic Conference, which represents the Catholic Bishops of New York State. Catholic Charities and the Catholic Conference have been advocating for passage of the Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act for more than two decades. At the same time, the Church has been working on the ground to meet the spiritual and material needs of farmworkers and their families – through Catholic Charities, Catholic parishes, and individual clergy, religious and lay people.

Cannot Support Farm Workers without Supporting the Farms

It is through this lens that I deliver my remarks. Let me begin by making one thing clear: Support for basic rights for farmworkers is not anti-farmer. At least it need not be. Our organization serves farm families and farmworkers alike. We are in this community and are well aware of the unique nature of farming and the challenges facing farmers, from uncontrollable weather factors, to the pressures of modern economies, to injuries, the high cost of maintenance, distribution of a perishable product and competition from foreign markets. We need our family farms, for our local economy and for our very subsistence.

But at the same time, just as farming has evolved technologically, it must also evolve to a 21st century understanding of fair working conditions for farmworkers. We must ensure that farmworkers are treated humanely and with dignity, in the same way we work to ensure other workers of our state are treated. This is not about putting farmworkers ahead of farms. You can’t support the farmworkers without supporting the farms, and vice versa. Both depend on and need the other.

Not Special Rights, Just Human Rights

Justice and human dignity demand, however, that changes come to the industry in terms of how workers are treated. It is important to remember that farmworkers do not seek special rights; they seek only the same rights guaranteed to other workers in every other sector – the right to overtime pay, the right to a day of rest every week, the right to workers compensation, the right to sanitary housing conditions, and the right to collectively bargain.

We hear and appreciate the concerns of those who argue that providing fair treatment to this population will raise prices for consumers, but we can truly make the same case about any other sector of the workforce, and we do not allow that to stop us from doing what is right.

Shannon Kelly 

Grab This Opportunity

If New York is truly the progressive state that we say we are, how do we justify this continued unfair playing field? We can’t. We are faced now with an opportunity. We must grab that chance and not let it slip away yet again.

I hope and pray that the Legislature will work collaboratively with the farmworkers and our family farms to craft meaningful reform this year, one that recognizes the unique contributions of our farmers, and the human dignity of our farmworkers.

Thank you again and God bless you.

Catholic Charities of Orange, Sullivan, and Ulster serves the homeless, the hungry, those with emotional or physical disabilities, as well as immigrants, the marginalized and the vulnerable of this tri-county region. Last year, this upstate affiliate of Catholic Charities NY served more than 42,000 individuals and families, regardless of race, religion, or ability to pay.

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