- By Tompkins County Immigrant Rights Coalition
- Around Town
Thanks to the recent yogurt boom, New York's dairy industry generates $14 billion a year, with milk sales representing 50% of upstate New York's total agricultural sales.
But a new study, Milked: Immigrant Dairy Farmworkers in New York State, finds that the immigrant workers who provide the milking labor that the industry heavily depends on are themselves being 'milked.' As one worker stated, "We immigrants do the dirty, heavy, and low-paid work behind the gallons of milk that you and your family consume."
The study was coauthored by a team of academic scholars and community leaders: Carly Fox of the Worker Justice Center of New York, Rebecca Fuentes of the Workers' Center of Central New York, Fabiola Ortiz Valdez and Gretchen Purser, both of Syracuse University, and Kathleen Sexsmith of Cornell University. Its findings are based on face-to-face interviews conducted in 2014 and 2015 with 88 immigrant dairy farmworkers on 53 different dairy farms in Central, Western and Northern New York State.
According to the report, the milk business today is far different from that of even a few decades ago. In order to stay competitive in a globalized market where multinational corporations play an increasing role, dairy farmers have looked to growth, consolidation, efficiency, and automation of their operations. The result has been a race to the bottom in the treatment and working conditions of the largely undocumented Latino immigrant laborers that the industry has come to rely on.
In describing these conditions, the report highlights the rarely-heard voices of the workers themselves. The report describes the long hours, low pay, lack of basic labor rights and protections, dangerous working conditions, and social isolation experienced by immigrant laborers.
The researchers found that, on average, dairy farmworkers work 12-hour days, six days a week, at or near the minimum wage. Two-thirds of the workers surveyed in Milked had been injured at least once on the job, in many cases seriously enough to require medical attention. Workers cited lack of adequate training as one reason for workplace accidents. "The experience of dairy farmworkers as reported in Milked matches what we have heard time and time again in our training," noted Tom Joyce, chairperson of the Midstate Council for Occupational Safety and Health, which has been supporting Ithaca area dairy farmworkers by training them in basic workplace safety and health rights for the past 5 - 6 years. "Dairy farmworkers risk constant injury working with 1000+ pound animals and on machinery which may not have the proper safety protections or for which they are not adequately trained. Five farmworkers have been killed on area dairy farms in the last five years, all during incidents which could have been avoided."
Given their long work hours, inability to obtain a driver's license, and fear of immigration enforcement, dairy farmworkers report leaving the farm premises, on average, as infrequently as once every 11 days. Some report leaving only for medical emergencies. Among the survey participants, feelings of depression and isolation were widespread.
Featured in the report is the story of Crispin Hernandez, a Workers' Center of Central New York worker leader who was fired from one of the state's largest dairies for engaging his co-workers in organizing efforts.
Crispin stated in the report, "All of these injustices we are seeing today, it's not fair. We are all human beings and we deserve respect and dignity. The time has come for all of this injustice to change." He is now the lead plaintiff in a case before the New York State Supreme Court. If a favorable decision is reached in Hernandez v. New York State, more than 60,000 farmworkers in New York will finally have the right to collective bargaining, after eight decades of exclusion from this basic right.
The report concludes with recommendations for action at the state government level, by dairy companies, and by consumers.