Long Island Hispanic Farmworkers Demand Labor Rights

José Chapa (left), coordinator for the Justice for Farmworkers campaign, and Salvadoran Juan Zúñiga, a field worker in East Hampton, Long Island. (Photo via Noticia Long Island)

Juan Zúñiga has been a farmworker in the East Hampton area of Long Island for 12 years. Proud of working in the field, he believes that he deserves the same benefits as other workers in New York State.

For that reason, he chose to give up the little spare time he has to join the Justice for Farmworkers campaign, which seeks to obtain equal labor conditions and to improve the treatment “those without a voice” receive, as Zúñiga describes his fellow workers.

His day starts at 7:00 a.m. and ends around 6:00 p.m., Monday through Friday. According to José Chapa, the campaign’s coordinator in New York, Zúñiga is one of the lucky ones who have the weekend off.

“Most farmworkers in New York work long days of between 10 and 12 hours, seven days a week, regardless of the weather,” said Chapa, who moved here from Texas five years ago. He worked 14 years in the fields and knows the situation of agricultural workers firsthand.

“We have men and women in the fields doing hard work every day without health benefits, without a vacation and for wages that do not remunerate their work fairly,” added Chapa.

(…) “We do not have the same rights as other industries, and it is not fair. They see us as inferior because we work in the field, because we get dirty from the soil,” said Zúñiga. He arrived in the United States 20 years ago and found in agricultural work the best way to support his family 12 years ago. Although he has been unable to bring them to live with him from his native El Salvador, they depend on him financially.

(…) “We are a group of workers who has been abandoned by the laws of this country. No government has wanted to recognize that we are a productive industry, that we pay taxes, that we are part of this country’s economy,” said Zúñiga.

“We are not important to any politician in this country. They do not realize that we are the ones who produce their fruits, vegetables, flowers… Men, women and old people dedicate many hours of their time to work in this industry,” he emphasized.

Workers’ rights were established in the 1930s, but farmworkers have always been excluded from them, preventing them from having the right to a day off per week, to overtime pay or to form unions.

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“Farmers have a lot of power and a strong lobby that dates back more than a hundred years. Agricultural workers in New York are mostly Latino, and a large percentage of them do not have legal permission to work. They do not donate to any politician’s campaign,” said Dr. Margaret Gray, associate professor of political science at Adelphi University.

She added that the fact that many farmworkers are not eligible to vote is one reason politicians don’t attend to them.  Politicians tend to pass laws to benefit the farm industry. “That is why it is important to find support among citizens who can put pressure on politicians, make demands and vote on behalf of those who cannot,” she said.

Still, years of political indifference could be left behind if the bill proposed by Justice for Farmworkers, currently up for vote in the Senate and the State Assembly, is passed in Albany.

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One Comment

  1. Chris Pawelski says:

    The employees of religious non-profits, the organizations that have self-appointed themselves as advocates of farmworkers and who are driving this, are also under many of the exemptions we are talking about, especially overtime.

    Why aren’t these organizations calling for the end of their exemptions and the payment of overtime to their employees?

    They aren’t because they are blathering hypocrites.

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