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Wednesday, September 24, 2014
- A widely respected advocate for U.S. farmworker rights received a prestigious award on Capitol Hill here Wednesday, using the occasion to highlight pending state legislation that could significantly improve lives and working conditions that some have likened to modern-day slavery.
Librada Paz originally came to the United States from Oaxaca, Mexico, when she was 15 years old, planning on studying for an engineering degree. Instead, for the next decade she ended up working on fruit and vegetable farms in New York State, where she learned of the “enormous discrimination” and “inhuman conditions” that continue to mark the lives of the state’s farmworkers.
“In the fields, you do not matter – neither your security, nor your thoughts, nor your dignity,” she told those gathered at a U.S. Senate office building, where she received this year’s Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award.
“While all workers suffer enormous discrimination, this is multiplied particularly for women. This is what it means when the legal system allows abuse – when justice has no meaning.”
In the United States, nearly 75 percent of farm labourers are Hispanic, more than half of whom are thought to be undocumented. While working conditions for farmworkers throughout the country remain difficult, those in New York State have long been particularly, and often cruelly, marginalised.
That’s because of state legislation, passed in 1932, that codified into law systematic discrimination against farmworkers in New York, even as other states eventually moved to extend protections to farm labour.
Now a leader with the Rural Migrant Ministry, a three-decade-old NGO focusing on farmworker rights in New York, Paz and others are currently ramping up agitation in support of state legislation that would do much to bring New York’s regulations on the issue in line with national and international standards. The bill, the Farmworker Fair Labor Practices Act (FFLPA), is scheduled to be debated early next year.
Unfinished rights battle
Currently, New York farmworkers are unable to engage in collective bargaining, while also lacking many of the labour protections that have become nearly universal in other sectors and states. Farm labourers do not receive overtime pay and often work for little over three dollars an hour, with child labour reportedly rampant.
According to Kerry Kennedy, Robert Kennedy’s daughter, many farmworkers in the state are forced to work 95-hour workweeks, often around the clock; live in miniscule, overcrowded group housing; and go years without receiving time off. On Wednesday, she reported that of two dozen women farmworkers with whom she spoke recently, each reported having suffered sexual assaults from employers.
If passed, the FFLPA would make it easier for women to pursue such charges against their employers. In addition, the bill would ensure that New York farmworkers receive the same minimum labour guarantees enjoyed by other workers in the state, enforcing a minimum wage, worktime caps and overtime assurances, and worker compensation and disability insurance.
“Farmworkers never received the rights most others received, and to this day they continue to be perceived as little more than chattel, thought of as ‘barely human’,” Kerry Kennedy said. “Drudgery, subjugation and humiliation are, today, what characterises the conditions for those who grow food for the people of this country.”
Kennedy says that the legal peculiarities that perpetuate the marginalisation of New York’s 60,000-odd farmworkers contravene international rights standards. She also notes that even as unemployment figures have skyrocketed in recent years in the United States, few within the mainstream have chosen to engage in readily available farmwork – because they realise that it’s next to impossible to make a living.
“Jim Crow conditions continue to live on in New York farms,” Kennedy said, referring to the systemic segregation that openly and legally marginalised African Americans for decades in large parts of the country. “This situation constitutes an unfinished battle for civil rights in this country.”
Now in its 29th year, the Robert F. Kennedy award is named after the assassinated former U.S. attorney general and brother of President John F. Kennedy, and over the decades it has recognised human rights defenders from 26 countries. In addition to his daughter, Robert Kennedy’s wife, Ethel, was in Washington on Wednesday to confer the award on Paz, the third laureate from the United States.
Farmworker rights was a central focus of Robert Kennedy’s advocacy work. The week before his 1968 assassination, Kennedy met with a hunger-striking Cesar Chavez, the California labour leader who has had the single most significant impact on Hispanic and farmworker rights in the United States.
Chavez funnelled much of his organising work through an organisation called the United Farm Workers, which he co-founded 50 years ago, in 1962, along with social activist Dolores Huerta. Librada Paz is often compared with both Chavez and Huerta, and the latter’s time is currently focused on raising support for the FFLPA, the New York legislation.
“Many people think of New York City as the intellectual soul of the United States, but the fact that farmworkers in that state still have no human rights – that’s a disgrace,” Huerta said here on Wednesday.
“This legislation is not asking for a lot, just for respect and dignity, but it is long overdue – those who feed us shouldn’t be treated like slaves. Workers in New York need to have this legislation passed to give them some level of protection, which would be a big first step.”
Huerta added that the FFLPA bill is “very close to passing, and if we all work together we can make it happen.”