National Farmworker Awareness Week: Farmworker Life

Carly Fox is a Worker Rights Advocate who organizes dairy workers in the Workplace Justice Program at the Worker Justice Center of NY. Carly wrote this guest blog for National Farmworker Awareness Week.


New York State’s dairy industry is booming as a result of the explosion of Greek yogurt with Chobani, the pioneer Greek yogurt company, focusing its investment in NY. For the past two decades, the profile of the average dairy worker has shifted towards an almost exclusive population of Mexican and Guatemalan milkers and herdsman.

Last year, I received a call from a dairy worker, Juan (a pseudonym), who asked for help getting his things out of his employer-provided housing. Juan had decided to quit the dairy and move out, but the owner was trying to prevent him from leaving. When Juan’s brother came to pick him up, the dairy owner reached into Juan’s brother’s car, took his keys out and put them in his pocket. When Juan’s brother got angry, the owner threatened to call immigration, a threat often used by employers to intimidate workers who may be undocumented. I came to learn that Juan had worked on this farm for a year. He had worked every single day with no day of rest. He worked four hours, then rested for four hours, around the clock. This grueling schedule, however, wasn’t what led him to quit. Juan decided to quit after the heat in the house stopped working for a third time during one of New York’s coldest winters. Juan had been trying to sleep curled up next to the oven, which he was using to heat the place. He couldn’t take it anymore, but the employer was pressuring him to stay by threatening to call immigration. To add insult to injury, Juan never received his last week’s paycheck from the employer.

Many of these farmworkers live in employer-owned housing which poses many challenges. Oftentimes, ten to twelve workers share one stove. There are no fans or hoods over the stoves so grease coats the walls and attracts pests. Workers arrive at farms and find that there are no beds. One group of workers had been sleeping on air mattresses for a whole year. One worker-leader we work with, Miguel (pseudonym), is lucky to have his family living with him here in the US (most dairy workers are here alone, with their families back in their home country). When the dairy farm Miguel worked on couldn’t retain American workers because the pay was too low, they started hiring many more Latino workers and stuffing them into the same house with Miguel’s family, causing many problems. Miguel’s family eventually moved out and his four kids had to change schools mid-year. When your landlord is your boss and vice versa, you risk losing your job when you ask for basic things to get fixed and risk becoming homeless. Unlike migrant and seasonal farmworkers who may have housing rights under federal or state laws and regulations, dairy housing is not routinely inspected for safety and basic habitability.

With the growth in dairies and the increase in immigrant workers, the Worker Justice Center began to see an increase in workplace violations in the industry as well. That prompted us to begin focusing our outreach and advocacy efforts on dairies in order to combat these abuses. WJCNY has placed priority on both litigation and advocacy strategies to push for better laws and stronger enforcement of existing laws covering dairy workers.

Lifting up the tragic stories of dairy workers killed on the job has been an important piece of our advocacy. Francisco Ortiz and Marco Antonio Ortiz (no relation) were both killed on small dairies in NY in 2013 and 2014 respectively. When OSHA conducted inspections following these deaths, they were unable to find violations and issue fines for health and safety conditions that might have led to these workers’ untimely deaths. Shockingly, despite the inherent dangers of dairy farming, dairies employing less than eleven employees are exempted from health and safety regulations. It is estimated that a mere two percent of NY dairies fall under OSHA jurisdiction, and therefore, its safety and health protections. On the other ninety-eight percent of dairies, farmworkers rely on the good will of the dairy owners to train them and provide adequate protective equipment. If workers speak up about safety concerns, they have no protections against retaliation.

Even when OSHA does have jurisdiction, their fines are minimal. We are proud of having fought hard in our advocacy targeted at OSHA, both at the local and federal levels, to win a Local Emphasis Program (LEP); a program of surprise inspections in an industry experiencing unusually high numbers of accidents and fatalities. Our partner organization, the Workers Center of Central NY, were leaders in the fight empowering workers to take the courageous step to complain to OSHA about the dangers in the industry and maintain pressure on OSHA to take further action to investigate health and safety violations on dairy farms.

Unfortunately, the LEP only goes so far and dairy farmers don’t seem very worried about the inspections. At a recent dairy farmer training I participated in, farmers presented on how an OSHA inspection would go, laughing at how little the inspectors know, and how easy they are to deceive; “Just hand them a big binder of safety instructions and they will leave you alone,” they joked.

What does this mean for the workers? A few years ago I met and began advocating for a worker who was mauled by a bull and was left to get medical help on his own. The worker was subsequently fired and lost his employer-provided housing in the middle of February because his doctor ordered bed-rest. He was unable to work for a year after the accident due to the severity of the injury. Fortunately, the farm he worked at had more than ten workers, and OSHA was able to conduct an inspection. I accompanied the inspector on the visit. The farm was issued a few thousand dollars in fines that were reduced upon appeal. I visit the farm every now and then. Like most farms where conditions are bad, there is high turnover of workers, and I have yet to hear a worker say they have been trained on how to work around bulls. The bulls are still present on the farm, and I know of several workers who have been injured by them.

Much more needs to be done to improve the safety conditions on dairies. First, Congress should remove the rider on the annual federal Appropriations Act which excludes farms with fewer than 11 employees from OSHA’s protections. Second, OSHA should increase the number of inspectors, and when workers make the brave and risky decision to come forward and file a complaint, OSHA inspections should result in significant enough citations to send a strong message to the industry and create a financial incentive for dairies to take safety precautions. Additionally, the standards OSHA uses in agriculture are outdated and too weak. Unlike other dangerous industries where there are stringent standards and safety measures, agriculture’s standards are paper thin, despite the dangerous nature of the work. Finally, at the State level, New York should create an administrative remedy that promotes annual inspections of dairies, monthly worker safety trainings and incentives to provide protective equipment, on all dairies, regardless of size.

Ultimately, improvements on dairy farms will come when workers organize and demand better wages and working conditions. Recently, a group of workers became upset that the farm increased the number of milking cows by 400, greatly speeding up the pace at which they are milking. The farm is hauling many more hundreds of gallons of milk off the farm, but workers haven’t received a cent more in wages. In fact, they are still making the minimum wage. The workers were already enduring disrespectful comments by management, including insults related to their nationality and intolerance for calling in sick to work, but it was the increased pace coupled with no raise that pushed them to action. They decided to risk getting fired and organize and demand a raise. As of this writing, they are still waiting for an answer.