Bringing Farmworkers to the Table:
Expanding our Understanding of Ethical Consumption

Photo credit: Melissa T. GoldmanFair trade, organic, cage-free or local—each trip to the supermarket forces us to balance a cacophony of ethical claims. And yet, what about the people who picked those apples, milked the cows, or gathered the eggs? They are invisible in most conversations about food ethics. We can buy food that demonstrates our care for chickens, cows, workers on plantations in distant lands, or the environment, but not for the workers on farms right here in new York State (NYS).

Through its advocacy for the NYS Farmworker Fair Labor Practices Act, Panim el Panim’s Economic Justice Hevra has created an opportunity for the BJ community to use its collective power to align our local food system with our Jewish ethics.

On the evening of April 3, nearly 150 people filled the BJ sanctuary for the launch of BJ’s campaign in support of the Farmworker Fair Labor Practices Act. With Passover soon to come, Roly, Marcelo and Felicia challenged us to see the connections between the struggle for farmworker justice and our own passage from slavery to freedom. Human rights advocates Kerry Kennedy and Librada Paz spoke compellingly of the abject conditions faced by farmworkers, not far from where we comfortably sat. Tables laden with delicious NYS cheese, wine, apples and crackers provided sustenance and a concrete point of reference for small group conversations about what counts as ethical eating.

Over the course of the evening, we heard about the struggles of laborers that are essential to new York’s multi-billion- dollar agricultural industry. In new York, there are an estimated 80,000-100,000 migrant, seasonal and dairy farmworkers. 1 This $4.7 billion industry is expanding, but most farmworkers are not reaping the benefits. According to a 2007 Hudson Valley Farmworker Report: “The need for subsistence income is so great that, for many farmworkers, it tends to be the underlying incentive for their decisions and often overrides other concerns about their personal well-being.” 2 This largely immigrant workforce, made up of both documented and undocumented laborers, is vulnerable to exploitation. Workers are often dependent on their employers for housing, transportation, heat and hot water. In these circumstances, huPhoto credit: Melissa T. Goldmanman dignity and personal security are all too frequently compromised if basic labor rights are not established.

Stories shared by Kennedy and Paz illustrated the daily problems faced by farmworkers. Kennedy spoke to us of unspeakably low wages and poor housing conditions, illustrating her point with a story about meeting a man who worked 12 hours a day, seven days a week, for 10 years without a single day off. He was paid minimum wage. And though he earned it, he could not claim overtime pay. “overtime that would be paid to any deli worker in New York City,” she said. “If he tried to form a union, he could be fired.”

Meanwhile, Paz shared her own personal story. As a teenager, she left her indigenous community in Oaxaca, Mexico, and found herself picking fruits and vegetables in fields across the United States, including New York. Paz worked at an adult pace, shared overcrowded housing, and suffered physical and sexual abuse from supervisors and contractors. Unfortunately, Paz’s experience is not uncommon. Under current federal laws, children as young as 12 years old may legally work in an industry where they are exposed to all the dangers and indignities of large-scale agriculture.3

A legacy of the Jim Crow era, the Fair Labor Standards Act (1938) and the national labor Relations Act (1935)—two transformative federal labor laws—exclude domestic workers and agricultural workers from wage and hour laws, the right to collective bargaining, and many other basic protections. But there is reason for hope.

The Farmworker Fair Labor Practices Act, passed for many years in the New York State Assembly and currently only a few votes shy of Senate passage, would grant agricultural workers essential labor protections, including the right to collective bargaining; fair pay for overtime; and a guaranteed day of rest.

NYS Senator Adriano Espaillat, the lead sponsor of the Farmworker Fair Labor Standards Act, urged those at the April 3 event to go beyond “preaching to the converted” and take the fight for farmworker justice to both local farmers’ markets and Albany on May 5. Rather than “having a margarita to commemorate a victory against colonialism at the battle of Puebla,” Senator Espaillat suggested we show our solidarity with the largely Latino farmworker community by getting on the BJ bus to Albany to ensure that the Farmworker Fair Labor Practices Act is passed by the Senate this year.

Not long ago, Panim El Panim was part of a broad coalition that advocated successfully for the passage of the historic NYS Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights. That legislation has echoed across the country, providing a profound example of how state-level progress can address what we consider to be among the most racist laws in America. Agricultural workers, however, remain unprotected. According to some farmworker accounts, New York is a particularly hostile climate, with active U.S. border patrol in the western part of the state contributing to a climate of fear and easy exploitation.

Many BJ members remember Cesar Chavez as a hero in the fight for migrant worker justice. Many of us may even have stood in solidarity with his movement, boycotting lettuce and grapes in the 1960s and 70s. Despite these efforts and more in the last 40+ years, New York State has yet to catch up with the advances secured by United Farm Workers in California.

We are surrounded by evidence of the exploitative conditions under which so much of what we consume is produced. Whether blood diamonds from Africa, collapsing factories in Bangladesh, or the subcontracting practices of multinational electronics producers with factories in China, much of the global supply chain is shaped by factors that are beyond our control as individual consumers or citizens. The Farmworker Fair Labor Practices Act presents a new opportunity to use our power as citizens to hold our political leaders accountable and demand that they act to protect the most vulnerable members of our society.Photo credit: Melissa T. Goldman

There is a long history of Jewish leadership and involvement in the American labor movement. In fact, early in the 20th century, Jewish garment workers in New York were pioneers in demanding a 40-hour workweek; minimum wage protections; the right to collective bargaining; and safe working conditions. Today, Jews in America have many opportunities. Though most of us no longer earn our living through manual labor, it does not mean that we should not stand with those who do. Indeed, the question must be asked: Are we with Moses or with Pharoah? Advocating with workers and community leaders of the statewide movement to improve conditions for agricultural laborers, and standing up for those who are often too vulnerable, exploited, or fearful to advocate for improved conditions, reconnects us to both our historical roots and to our most basic values.

The practice of keeping kosher offers a means to eat deliberately, to make every bite a meditation on what is fit or unfit for our consumption. Similarly, a modern Jewish ethics of consumption, which speaks to those of us who want to make food choices that demonstrate care for others, forces us to pull back the veil and consider the well-being of the person who produced that food. We should remember, as we sit down to a Shabbat dinner or take a quiet walk on Saturday afternoon, that there are those for whom every day is a work day. We should know that there is something we can do to make sure farmworkers are guaranteed a fair wage, safe working conditions, and a day of rest.

Jennifer Hirsch is Professor and Deputy Chair of Sociomedical Sciences at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health. A BJ member since 2005, she has worked on Panim El Panim’s campaigns for comprehensive sexuality education, marriage equality and domestic worker’s rights, and served on the Hebrew School Advisory Committee.