When the United States passed the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938, it took a step from Upton Sinclair’s Jungle to the workplace that you and I enjoy today. It’s been generations since the labor standard was raised, and now discussions of fairness and the workplace center around rising CEO pay, raising the minimum wage for fast food workers, and the union busting taking place in several states. But the sad fact is, in 2013, there is a class of workers that never stepped out of The Jungle and still lives under a set of protections not very different from the house of horrors Sinclair described.
Right now, in New York, a farmworker—man, woman, or yes, child—can work 80-hours per week, with no days off, no overtime compensation, no disability, and no right to organize…and it’s perfectly legal. Almost every other worker is protected from such abuses under New York state law—except farmworkers.
Five months ago, we knew nothing about the struggles of farmworkers in our state. We were both good liberals who shopped local, raised an eyebrow at GMOs, and believed we understood the politics of food. Then we saw pictures of 12 people sharing one toilet and one bedroom. Then we heard from men who had worked years on end without a single day of rest, some of them for more than a decade.
We are still shocked to think that in a state where we discuss whether our schools can serve kids food from tin cans lined with BPA, where “chef-lebrity” is an actual word, and “farm to table” is the foodie-phrase du jour, we don’t ever talk about the horrid conditions under which our produce is picked and our cows are milked.
That’s why the RFK Young Leaders have officially launched *Except Farmworkers: A campaign of the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice & Human Rights. Countless New Yorkers, along with individuals such as Michael Pollen, Ruth Reichl, Martin Sheen, and Eva Longoria, have joined us in this effort.
You can read more about the campaign at exceptfarmworkers.com.
Photo: Farm workers picking green beans, by Shutterstock