Lin-Manuel Miranda and Chef José Andrés Advocate for New York’s Farmworkers
In the daily rush of living in New York City, it’s easy to overlook the men and women whose work puts fruits and vegetables in our markets and on our tables. Their labor is vital to all New Yorkers. Yet some 100,000 fieldworkers in New York State lack many of the protections that other workers take for granted. It’s time to change that.
Nearly a century ago, farmworkers were excluded from the Federal Fair Labor Standards Act. That historic piece of legislation enshrined a number of important rights for all workers, including the right to collectively bargain, overtime pay, a day of rest, and safe and sanitary working conditions. But when it came time to pass the bill, Jim Crow-era racism excluded the nation’s largely black and brown farmworkers. States across the country soon followed suit and passed their own versions of the federal law.
In the intervening years, states have passed laws to right this wrong. But not New York. Despite the best efforts of activists, elected officials and farmworkers themselves, we have not guaranteed farmworkers the same rights the rest of us enjoy. It has passed the New York State Assembly many times over many years but could never get through the Senate.
This year has to be different. The Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act, sponsored by state Sen. Jessica Ramos and Assemblywoman Cathy Nolan, has wound its way through the Senate and Assembly and has substantial support from legislators. The bill would finally bring farmworkers in line with other workers by allowing them to organize, guaranteeing them workers’ compensation, disability and unemployment insurance, letting them earn overtime pay and granting them a state-mandated day of rest.
Agriculture in New York State generated nearly $5 billion in 2017. Some argue that giving farmworkers these rights would close farms and hurt the industry’s bottom line. This is a false choice. Farming is a difficult business, and New York’s farmers face stiff competition in the marketplace, but their continued existence can’t be contingent on continuing to deprive workers of the most basic of rights.
This is not about putting farmworkers ahead of the farms. It is about lifting an entire industry in our great state. It is about basic human rights, and ensuring that farmworkers will be treated humanely, with respect and dignity.
While we press for legislators to rewrite the statute, there’s a parallel fight underway in a state appeals court, where a former dairy farmworker is arguing, with the support of the New York Civil Liberties Union, that New York’s law exempting one class of workers from the right to organize violates the state Constitution.
Of course, we hope that the courts rule the right way. But we can’t count on the courts. We have an historic opportunity to correct a huge mistake made by previous generations, and we can’t let it pass by.
The condition of working people in New York State is much better, more just, and safer today than it was a century ago, but the plight of farmworkers calls out for justice. We finally have a chance to treat farmworkers with the dignity and respect they deserve. We urge our state Legislature and the governor to pass into law the Farmworker Fair Labor Practices Act before the end of the 2019 legislative session. We can’t wait any longer.
Miranda is a composer, lyricist and actor. Andrés is the founder of World Central Kitchen and chef/owner of ThinkFoodGroup and Mercado Little Spain at Hudson Yards. Calderón is president of the Hispanic Federation.