By Pinn Duong
On Thursday November 21st, 2019, GCC invited the campus and overall community to its second annual Social Justice Day featuring Robert F. Kennedy Humanitarian award winner Librada Paz as the keynote speaker. The keynote speech was followed by the breakout sessions of various topics surrounding the labor rights of farmers and minorities.
Librada Paz speech, “The Voice of Farmworkers’ Rights” documented her personal journey from being a 15-year-old migrant farmer picking tomatoes after crossing the Arizona desert into the US. Her teenage daily consisted of laboring in the field up to 10-14 hours a day, seven days a week and living in cramped living quarters with 16 other people. While being a voiceless migrant farmer, she suffered from sexual assaults and discrimination that were rampant in the agriculture industry in which labor rights were nonexistent. With financial support from her siblings, she attended high school in Brockport while working in the fields during weekends and eventually earning a mechanical engineering degree from RIT while juggling part-time jobs, farm works and advocating for farmer’s rights. After her RIT graduation, instead of diving into the fruitful career as an engineer, she worked full time to advocate and educate migrant farmers communities to know their rights.
You can learn more details about her tirelessly inspiring journey on how she became a national human rights activist for farmworkers’ rights here.
Here are some background and key takeaways on farm workers’ rights in the US:
“Since the 1930s, farmworkers across the US have been denied the most fundamental labor protections: minimum wage, a day of rest each week, overtime pay, disability insurance, collective bargaining, worker’s compensation, and a safe and sanitary work environment.” (1)
Yes, you read it right. Farmers work 10 hours a day, seven days a week with no break, not even a single day, lest they risk losing their jobs.
“Farmworker work up to 16 hours a day with no overtime and no protections from retaliatory firing. They also suffer from higher rates of cancer and other health hazards due to pesticide and herbicide.” (1)
One of the breakout session titled Social Justice Work and Migrant Workers: Past, Present and Future , presented by Geneseo Migrant Center members, addressed all aspects of a farmer’s life (from their seasonal follow-the-crop migration, to their lack of healthcare and education) was an eye-opening lecture for me. One of the slides detailed a devastating healthcare condition of a farmer that Geneseo Migrant Center worked with,
“Dr. Matlin remembers one extreme case found through in-camp health screening. A diabetic man had severe osteomyelitis. An ulcer had eaten through his skin and flesh into the bone. Lacking money, insurance or first aid supplies, he had stuffed the ulcer using toilet paper and kept on working. With the center’s intervention, he was finally admitted to a hospital, where the ulcer was treated.”
Two decades after New York farmers fight for their basic rights, the Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act was finally passed in 2019 and will be in effect on January 1st 2020 (2).
The last time the bill reached the Senate was 2010 (almost a decade ago!), which it lost by three votes. Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act will grant New York farmer the most fundamental labor protections that all other hourly workers enjoys.
We all want to feel good about the food we consume every day, and the unending ignorance and injustice in labor rights against farmworkers are just some of the many disgraces in our food system that must be stopped. “Imagine the time that people were slaves,” Paz said. “A lot of the farmworkers were slaves, and since that time, they’ve excluded farmworkers from having equal rights with other industries.”
Featured photo: ROC United