You might remember Governor Andrew Cuomo’s efforts to reform the nail salons in New York State this past spring. He and the legislature pushed a handful of laws that covered everything from licensing of salons to the chemicals that their workers use on a daily basis. “Worker exploitation” was the recurring theme with this. And, it’s something that he’s not easing up on and expanding to other industries.
In mid-July he formed a task force charged with rooting out worker exploitation. It is composed of 10 state agencies including the Department of State, Department of Labor and Department of Agriculture and Markets, which will work with an advisory committee to provide legislative, regulatory and administrative recommendations. This new endeavor will utilize more than 700 investigators to probe alleged labor abuses in various sectors of the economy.
The wording of the press releases and Cuomo’s speeches painted a grim picture by insinuating that the industries in question have a deep and wide-ranging culture of worker exploitation. Consider this accusatory statement of Cuomo’s: “Go look at a carwash. Go look at a laundry service. Go look at who comes in your home as a cleaning lady. Go talk to the nannies. It’s everywhere in society. Walk onto any construction site and see what’s going on.”
Such grandstanding and hyperbole is dangerous, as it is supposed make the average person believe that exploitation is a normal daily practice for any business that they might frequent, especially when the word “any” is utilized as it was by Cuomo (meaning every construction company is guilty of abuses).
Among the industries being targeted by Cuomo is agriculture and it might be one of the prime targets. In most of the speeches and documents, farming comes in second on the list of targets (after nail salons), which highlights its value to inspectors. It’s likely due to the fact that so many migrant and guest workers are employed in farming and, therefore in Cuomo’s eyes, ripe for exploitation.
Agriculture is the wrong target for the task force (as are most industries, for that matter). If anything, farming should be held up as the standard of what employers should do for migrants and immigrants in and out of the workplace.
For starters, farming pays a good wage. A 2009 study found that dairy workers (who have year-round employment) earned an average of $10 in the Empire State. Seasonal workers earn more; a cursory look at want ads in the local paper will show pickers and harvesters being paid anywhere from $11.25 to $12 an hour for work that’s available 5 months out of the year on the Niagara Frontier. Many of those workers stay on, helping their employers trim and prune fruit trees. In all cases, the wage rates are far in excess of the state minimum of $8.75.
Beyond the wages, farm workers are also afforded substantial benefits. 35 percent of farms provide to their workers benefits valued from $1,000 to $4,999 per year while 27 percent provided benefits valued at $5,000 per year or more.
Among those benefits is transportation. Farmers will either pick up the workers at their temporary homes or allow them nearly unlimited personal use of the farm’s vehicles to tend to their daily needs – recreation, shopping, transporting their children, etc.
Farmers also provide rent-free housing to their workers. Cuomo’s exploitation task force might be quick to call them “labor camps”, but if they took a drive through rural Niagara County they would find anything but dirty labor camps. The seasonal and dairy workers in the area are given use of some nice well-maintained homes. Within 10 minutes of my house, there are a half-dozen such establishments, all of which provided provide good, clean environments for the workers and their families.
And, it’s those families that are also afforded benefits by farmers. Among those are the Agri-Business Child Development centers found throughout the state. A non-profit run by the New York State Federation of Growers' & Processors' Associations and funded by federal funds and donations from farm owners and farming organizations, ABCD provide high-quality education and social services to farm workers’ families.
Taking into consideration the above, you can be certain the ag industry isn’t out there exploiting workers left and right. They are doing what they can to bring a good income and a good life to the people they work side-by-side with in the fields, orchards and barns. They are treating them with the utmost respect…something Cuomo doesn’t seem interested in affording farm families in New York State.
From the 10 August 2015 Lockport Union Sun and Journal