Albany Times Union
Here’s how to improve conditions for farmworkers
It is important for farms to care for their team members. This goes a long way in attracting and keeping the good employees who sustain our food system. While there are great examples of farms with good housing, some farms need to do better, and we have made great strides in establishing programs aimed at improving the experience and working conditions on farms. Lawmakers who are concerned about conditions for farmworkers can help by supporting the following measures: ▪ The Agricultural Workforce Development Program at Cornell University offers training programs, human resource development and a specialist working with farms to evaluate and improve housing. But funding for that position is in jeopardy of being cut from the next state budget. To help the state’s farmworkers, restoring that budget line is a good place to start.
▪ Building new worker housing can be a challenge, especially right now with inflationary pressures and supply issues. That is why the New York Farm Bureau and other agricultural organizations advocate for the state’s Farmworker Housing Revolving Loan Fund, which goes towards new housing and modernizing current residences. It has been a successful, widely used program, and Gov. Kathy Hochul nearly doubled its funding last year. We encourage the state to continue funding this program.
▪ Protecting workers is about more than just where they live. They need safe workplaces too. We encourage support for the New York Center for Agricultural Medicine and Health. Its innovative, bilingual safety programs have prevented injuries and saved countless lives through the years. But after 14 years of flat funding and continually rising costs, the center’s work is in jeopardy. It needs an additional $1 million in state funding to carry on its mission.
▪ On the federal level, the New York Farm Bureau and others, including the United Farm Workers union, are advocating for reform of the federal agricultural guest worker program
known as H-2A visas. Opening the program up to year-round workers, including dairy farm employees, would set federal standards and inspections for year-round housing. It would also provide legal status for migrant workers wanting to work year-round in agriculture, bringing many out of the shadows. The guest worker visa system is far better for employees than the current system, which is why the largest farmworkers union supports it. We ask Congress to make it happen.
It is important for workers to be engaged as well. While owners must provide safe housing that meets all zoning and code requirements, those houses are considered personal space, where tenants have a responsibility to keep the lodgings clean and notify landlords of any problems. We certainly encourage farmers to have open and honest conversations about housing conditions with their employees. Worker justice organizations that claim to know of bad housing have a duty to report alleged violations. All farmworkers should be afforded safe, sanitary housing, and every municipality already has the authority to inspect it.
New York agriculture remains committed to continuous improvement. Where there are problems, let’s work together to fix them.