Propelled by the much-heralded “yogurt boom,” New York’s dairy production and processing industry generates $14 billion a year and is the star sector of the state’s agricultural economy. But a new study, to be released today at the start of National Dairy Month, finds that the immigrant workers who provide milking labor on which the industry heavily depends are themselves being “milked.”
The study, Milked: Immigrant Dairy Farmworkers in New York State, is based upon a face-to-face survey with 88 workers across 53 different farms located in the Central, Northern, and Western regions of New York State. It 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.
The report presents a concerning picture of the working and living conditions on New York dairy farms, and it does so by highlighting the rarely-heard voices of the workers themselves. As one worker proclaimed, “We immigrants do the dirty, heavy, and low paid work behind the gallons of milk that you and your family consume.” Indeed, as the industry has grown and consolidated, more and more farmers have turned to undocumented Latino immigrants to fill positions in their 24-hour milking parlors. These workers are acutely aware of their deportability and vulnerability to exploitation. “We came here to work,” a worker objected, “but not like slaves.” Nine out of ten workers surveyed believe that their employers care more about the cows than about workers’ well-being.
Like all agricultural workers in New York, dairy farmworkers are excluded from a number of basic labor rights and protections, including the right to organize, the right to a day of rest, and the right to overtime pay.
The researchers found that, on average, dairy farmworkers work 12 hours per day, six days per week. Without a right to a guaranteed day off, it is not uncommon for workers to work seven days a week, sometimes for years on end. That is the case for Alvaro, a 25 year-old worker from Mexico, who works 85 hours per week. When he and his coworkers complained to their boss about their need for a break, they were threatened with being fired.
Despite such a crushing work schedule, dairy workers also face considerable economic hardship. Their wages hover at or near the minimum wage. Moreover, twenty-eight percent of workers surveyed have knowingly experienced at least one instance of wage theft. Given the frequency with which farmworkers admit to not understanding their pay stubs, the authors suspect the actual rate of wage theft to be much higher.
Working conditions on dairy farms are dangerous and can be fatal. Sixty-nine farmworker fatalities have been reported on New York dairies in the decade between 2006 and 2016. And fully two-thirds of the workers surveyed had experienced one or more injuries while on the job. Sixty-eight percent of those injured said the injury was serious enough to require medical attention. Workers reported kicks to the head, crushed limbs, eye injuries due to chemical splashes, falls sustained on slippery parlor floors, lacerations from equipment, and broken and fractured bones. These fatalities and injuries were, on the whole, preventable. But dairy farms are relatively unregulated workplaces compared to other industries, and few farmworkers receive adequate training. Indeed, a third of the workers surveyed report having received no training at all. “I barely had training, like one minute,” one worker explained. “I figured it out after some time. One just simply has to learn as they go.”
Given their long work hours, their inability to obtain a driver’s license, and their 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, resulting in almost total immobility. Among the survey participants, feelings of depression and isolation were widespread. And numerous workers referred to feeling “locked up.” The authors are aware that these feelings have only grown in intensity among farmworkers since the research was conducted, given the Trump administration’s disparaging rhetoric about immigrants and increased immigration enforcement activities.
The report also highlights workers’ and their advocates’ ongoing efforts to fight back against injustice and to improve employment conditions throughout the dairy industry. Featured in the report is the story of Crispin Hernandez, a WCCNY worker leader who was fired from one of the state’s largest dairies for engaging his co-workers in organizing efforts. 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 NY would finally have the right to collective bargaining, after 8 decades of exclusion from this basic right. “We don’t have the same rights as other workers, that is why we’re fighting for our right to organize,” reads a quote from Crispin featured 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.”
Rebecca Fuentes of the Worker Center of Central New York and a co-author of MILKED says “Since 2013, the Workers’ Center of CNY and the Worker Justice Center of NY have been on the frontline of uncovering and fighting against the unjust, hazardous, and unsafe working conditions of dairy farmworkers in upstate New York. Through this report, people will get to know the stories of farmworkers like Lazaro. While working on a small farm in Broome County, Lazaro was attacked by a bull and almost lost an eye and yet the employer made it almost impossible for him to get workers’ compensation. Lazaro suffered an immense amount of stress from not being able to pay medicals bills. Because of OSHA’s lack of jurisdiction over farms with less than 11 workers, the farm was never fined or inspected. While people might dismiss Lazaro’s experience as an unfortunate and extreme case, these conditions are widespread. The Workers’ Center of CNY is organizing and has accomplished many victories. With this report, we invite everyone to join us in fighting to make sure farmworkers, like all workers, have dignity, respect, and justice at their workplaces.”
Carly Fox of the Worker Justice Center of New York, and a co-author of the report, explained: “For more than two decades, the New York State dairy industry has grown increasingly dependent on immigrant workers, yet there is little known about the impact these trends have had on the industry, working conditions and the lives of workers themselves. MILKED is the first publication of a comprehensive and participatory study of immigrant dairy workers. Our results confirm what worker advocates have seen throughout the years: working conditions are deteriorating for immigrant dairy workers.
The dairy boom has to led to increased production, yet, due to the unique economic pressures on the dairy industry that depress the price of milk, farmers argue that the only way to ensure financial stability is to cut labor costs – a burden borne by the workers. We call on our elected representatives to create comprehensive policy solutions that protect not only farms but the workers who milk and care for the cows. We also call on consumers and dairy industry companies to support and create worker-led corporate social responsibility programs with enforceable standards.”
The authors make a number of recommendations to bring about an end to the “milking” of immigrant dairy workers. They call for Governor Cuomo and the New York State Legislature to not only eliminate the exemption of farmworkers from basic labor rights, but to allow undocumented immigrants to obtain drivers’ licenses, to provide more rigorous oversight of workplace health and safety on dairies, and to ensure that all farmworkers live in safe and dignified housing. “The state has invested heavily in the success of the dairy business—through all kinds of financial incentives and product promotion—but it has done so with little regard for the workforce whose labor has made that success possible,” says Gretchen Purser, a professor of sociology at the Maxwell School of Syracuse University and co-author of the report. “It’s time for the state to take action against worker exploitation in its most prized agricultural industry.”
The authors also call for dairy companies like Chobani to implement and enforce worker-led codes of ethical labor conduct with their fresh milk suppliers, purchasing only from those farms that participate in rigorous labor rights monitoring conducted independent of the dairy purchaser or supplier.
Donna Lieberman, Executive Director of the NYCLU, says “Milked shines a glaring spotlight on the unfair, dangerous and inhumane working conditions at New York’s dairy farms. It is shameful that a racist, 80-year- old New York law continues to deny farmworkers important workplace protections, including the right to organize for better conditions. Milked is a rallying call to all New Yorkers to unite with farmworkers across the state fighting for fair treatment.”
The full report can be downloaded at http://www.milkedny.org and shared via social media using the hashtags #MilkedNY, #MilkCowsNotWorkers and #DairyMonth.
Rebecca Fuentes | firstname.lastname@example.org | 315-657-6799 (cell)
Carly Fox | email@example.com | 585-500-9409 (cell)