FONDA, New York — The hills of this rural area 45 minutes northwest of the state’s capital look as idyllic as the scenes pictured on boxes of Stonyfield Farm organic rBST-free milk.
The ground is green with grass, onions and cabbage, broken up by thin gray strips of pothole-dotted roads. The only protrusions are white farmhouses, red barns, a few silos and some cows.
For some, this scenic land contains a hidden hellscape.
As Americans have latched onto a particular idea of agriculture as morally ideal — small, often organic-certified farms transporting vegetables, humanely raised meats and antibiotic-free dairy short distances to farmers’ markets and ethically focused grocery stores like Whole Foods — farm workers and activists say a crucial link in the food chain has gone largely ignored by those who may consider themselves conscious consumers: labor.
With the image of the small farm becoming ever more present in the collective conscience of an increasingly food-aware nation, farm laborers and activists say it’s more important than ever to set the record straight and highlight the fact that even in the quaintest settings, labor abuse is still rampant.
In central and western New York, where farm workers are often undocumented and speak limited English, working on farms small enough to avoid the scrutiny of U.S. labor regulators, data are lacking on just how rampant abuses are. But workers and the activists who represent them say minimum wage violations, verbal abuse, long hours, unsafe working conditions and even physical attacks on workers are commonplace. And they say the problem is growing, especially on small dairy farms as the dairy industry in New York booms, thanks to the country’s newfound fondness for Greek-style yogurt.
Lázaro Álvarez, one of as many as 800,000 undocumented farm workers in the U.S., has decided to speak up, despite the risks that entails,
Álvarez, 39, lived in Mexico City until April 2013. He was laid off from his job as a manager at a warehouse run by pharmaceutical giant Boehringer Ingelheim after the company switched to a mechanical system to manage inventory, and he couldn’t find any work in his hometown.
Álvarez left his wife and two kids behind for the U.S., spending eight days crossing the desert — including three without food or water. He made his way to Tucson, Arizona, and over the next few weeks to upstate New York, where a friend helped him find a job corralling cows on a dairy farm in Chenango County.
In September, Álvarez was charged by a bull. The animal pushed him up against a metal railing, injuring his shoulder and ribs and giving him a deep cut just below his right eye. His boss, the owner of the farm, pulled the cow away from Álvarez but wouldn’t take him to the hospital for two hours, until after the owner finished milking his cows.
When Rebecca Fuentes, an organizer from the Workers’ Center of Central New York called the hospital to check on Álvarez, the owner’s sister answered the phone and pretended to be a nurse, according to Fuentes and Álvarez. Because his medical team did not speak Spanish and because his employers waited by the phone at the hospital, he wasn’t aware until weeks later that his employers had told authorities that he was just visiting the farm, not working on it, when the accident happened. His workers’ compensation case is now a lot more complicated.
About 15 days after the incident, when it became clear that Álvarez’s ability to perform strenuous manual labor was still impaired, his employer fired him. He searched for work for two months.
“I tried to get out of my head that I had this accident, because it meant I couldn’t provide for my family,” Álvarez said. “It took me three months to tell them because I was ashamed.”
He eventually found work on another dairy farm. He now lives with two other workers in a dilapidated farmhouse at the edge of his employer’s property. He makes $500 a week and sends home 80 percent of that to his wife and kids in Mexico. His son is still finishing college, and his daughter recently landed a job as a lawyer in the Mexican government.
Álvarez says the hardest part of living in the U.S. isn’t the low pay or even the hard work; it’s the isolation and fear of being found by police and deported back to Mexico.
“I’m used to a subway, to restaurants and seeing lots of people,” he said. “This is a big change. I can’t go many places.”
About a month ago, a small fire started at the back of his house. He called his employer and told him to get the fire department.
Then, fearing the firefighters would call the cops on him or arrive with them, Álvarez walked deep into the woods behind the farm. It took him hours to find his way back to the house.
Advocates say stories like his are common: injuries, underpayment and other forms of labor abuse occur, and migrant workers don’t know where to turn.
There’s Luis, who until recently worked 12 hours a day on a farm where one of the owners yelled and pushed him. When Luis found the environment too hostile to continue working, he picked up his family and moved hours away to a new community to find work, re-establishing his young children in a new school.
There’s Orlando, who says that a farm owner whipped him with a plastic pipe a few years ago and that he suffered not only physical injuries but also emotional ones from the incident. When he told the cops about the abuse, he says they laughed in his face.
“I never imagined being treated so badly,” Orlando said. “The owner treated me like an animal.”
There were 16 deaths in the agricultural sector in New York in 2012, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, and 55 since 2006. Statistics on injuries are much harder to come by. Small farms — defined as operations with 10 or fewer employees — don’t have to report the same data to state and federal regulators that large farms and virtually every other business do.
There is no database for injuries like those Álvarez sustained. Small farms also aren’t subject to the same regular safety inspections as larger operations
There have been enough complaints from workers and activists about upstate New York’s dairy farms that the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration started a local emphasis program in July, conducting surprise inspections on farms and workplace safety training for some farmers and workers. But small farms were excluded from this program too, and it is scheduled to run only nine months.
Farms, regardless of their size, don’t have to give employees a day off and are not required to pay overtime, and workers have no explicit rights to collective bargaining.
Several bills — including the New York Farmworker Fair Labor Practices Act — have been introduced in the state legislature in an attempt to close these loopholes, but none have passed.
Steve Ammerman, a spokesman with the New York Farm Bureau, which represents farm owners, said existing laws are adequate for workers (though it does support the right to a day off).
Ammerman said the best protection for workers is their right to choose where they work in an agricultural economy that’s going through a mini-boom.
“There’s a labor shortage for farm workers,” he said. “If farm owners are not paying workers a competitive wage and if they’re not treating them well, they’re not going to have employees.”
But according to farm worker advocates, that model doesn’t work for a labor force that’s economically strained and politically unrepresented.
“When you have a job, and let’s say five to 10 people rely on you back home for providing a meal, stakes are so much higher for you to vote with your feet,” said Carly Fox, an organizer with the Worker Justice Center, which helps farmworkers in western and central New York. “There’s no unemployment insurance, there’s no safety net, and there’s no guarantee that you’ll get another job anytime soon.”
Getting the public’s attention about problems on small farms is hard work, Fox says. Workers’ rights campaigners aren’t asking people to protest faceless corporations or corrupt politicians. The Goliaths in their world are usually Davids — small farm owners who are often struggling to keep their business afloat in a country with the lowest food prices in the developed world.
And over the last few years, as the local food movement has taken hold, Fox and others say it has become increasingly hard to convince people that small farms aren’t necessarily oases of American morality.
“You’ve been told your whole life, starting from when you’re a baby, how vital farms are for the economy, how farmers are these rural heroes. Food marketing is imbued with all this nostalgia about farms,” said Margaret Gray, a professor at Adelphi University who wrote a book on labor issues in the local food movement. “That makes it really hard to empathize with workers and not just the farmers.”
But what makes substantive change the hardest for farmworkers is the reality of their lives. Despite the willingness of some workers to come forward and organize — meeting other workers and educating them, traveling to meet with consumers in urban areas — they’re mostly still hidden from the public eye.
Living in rural areas, often on the property of farm owners, farm workers rarely appear as a unified labor force. And because so many are undocumented, coming forward with their stories and organizing for political change is often impossible. Many are even afraid to leave their houses.
José, a 39-year-old farm worker with four children decided to take his kids to a state park near Buffalo, New York, on Memorial Day. On their way through the park, he was pulled over by a park police officer. The officer said José’s wheels had touched the white dividing line between lanes, which José denies. The officer asked to see his license. When José admitted he was undocumented, the officer called immigration, and José was arrested. He spent 20 days in a detention center in Batavia, New York, before a group organized by activists and his church bailed him out. The threat of deportation still looms over him.
The absence from work cost José his job, and he’s now filling in on another farm when shifts are available.
But José is less worried about money than about the other parts of American life he has been excluded from. Without a common language and documentation, he says, it’s hard to establish roots in the community and communicate his family’s needs to the government, his neighbors and his employer. Among the most basic needs he feels he’s missing: respect.
“We came here because of economic reasons,” he said. “But we’re missing someone who can understand us. Someone saying, ‘I’m with you, I hear you,’ to give you a hug, to feel your pain. For me, that’s worth more than money. Right now, we feel alone with our problems.”