Tired and hungry, Pablo Cruz is not discouraged and is hopeful that his rights as a farmworker are finally respected. Cruz, 66, has already walked approximately 40 miles from Smithtown to Hempstead as part of the March for Farmworkers Justice, which for the first time has started on Long Island.
Cruz, who lives in Newburgh, New York, across the Hudson River, came to Long Island to be part of the march and along with other farmworkers and faith and labor leaders, is traveling to different cities across New York State to bring awareness about farmworkers’ rights. They will walk 200 miles to Albany.
He and the other marchers have been eating cookies, water and light refreshments for lunch and have spent the night in churches where they have been provided small meals. Deep down in his heart, Cruz knows that his sacrifice is worth it and it is nothing compared to working on a farm for long hours and under deplorable conditions.
“They [farm employers] mistreat us. We sometimes work from 7 am to 6 pm and they don’t pay us for extra hours. They just pay the minimum wage,” said Cruz, who presently works on a Montgomery farm sowing cucumbers, corn, broccoli, potatoes, peppers and more.
Cruz, an immigrant from Mexico who came to the U.S. 35 years ago, has been working on farms for more than 20 years in New York. He believes it is now time for justice and equality.
“We want the same treatment as factory workers, we want good salaries, we want employers to recognize extra hours, we want respect,” Cruz said.
The march is part of the Justice for Farmworkers Campaign which began 20 years ago when farmworkers in New York realized that they were excluded from the same rights given to other workers, according to Rev. Richard Witt, Executive Director for the Rural & Migrant Ministry (RMM). RMM is a non-profit organization formed to develop just, rural and migrant communities throughout New York State.
The purpose of the march is to bring awareness about farmworkers’ rights but also to invite faith and labor leaders to get involved so that farmworkers’ claims can be heard, Witt explained.
On their way to Albany, marchers have rallied in Smithtown, Brentwood, Wyandanch, Bethpage, Hicksville, and Hempstead. They are asking State Senators to bring the Farmworker Fair Labor Practices Act (S.1291) to the floor, a state legislation that would grant collective bargaining rights, worker’s compensation and unemployment benefits to farmworkers.
“The main thing that many farmworkers have said is that they want to be treated equally. They don’t know why the law treats them differently, so it is a matter of dignity,” Rev. Witt said. If passed “the first thing it [the bill] does is to restore their dignity through equality. The second thing it does is it gives them a day of rest and farmworkers’ average life expectancy is much lower than everybody else’s and partly because they don’t get to rest,” he said.
Farmworkers and domestic workers were excluded from the Fair Labor Standards Act and the National Labor Relations Act, two federal legislations created in the 1930s to establish respect and dignity to all workers. At that time southern legislators did not want blacks to have the same rights as white workers, explained Nathan Berger, Long Island Outreach Coordinator for RMM.
“Our organization has been working for 25 years now to bring farmworkers equal rights,” Berger said. “It was not until 1996 that all farmworkers were guaranteed the right to drinking water in the field, it was not until 1998 that they were guaranteed the right to toilets and sanitation in the field, it was not until 2000 that they were granted the right to New York State minimum wage.”
According to RMM, farmworker’s work is crucial to food production, and is at the base of the state’s multi-billion dollar agricultural industry. On Long Island alone there were 659 farms in 2012, and over $150 million in sales, placing Suffolk County as third in the state for agricultural sales.
Approximately 75% of farmworkers in New York State are immigrants, according to Nathan Berger.