The bucolic green hills of the classic dairy farm seem to be a hallmark of rural New York’s social landscape. But behind the barn door, something has gone rotten. Your fresh milk is delivered to your neighborhood grocery store courtesy of some of the most miserable and exhausted workers in the state, squeezed into high-pressure grueling production lines, chasing dwindling wages, stripped of their rights while their bosses flout workplace regulations.
A study by the advocacy groups Worker Justice Center of New York and Workers’ Center of Central New York reveals endemic abuse; many workers say they suffer such intense exploitation, economic and physical, that they feel their bosses care less about their employees than about their cows. Warehoused in substandard housing camps and working up to 15 hours a day, these mostly migrant workers live isolated, virtually invisible lives, and employers can thread through regulatory loopholes to exploit these seemingly expendable, marginalized people.
Nearly half those surveyed reported that they had “suffered bullying or discrimination” at work, which often took a racial or ethnic overtone or referred to their immigration status. Over a quarter of the workers said their boss had subjected them to “aggressive, disrespectful, or inconsistent behavior.”
But a greater indignity inflicted by the industry is abysmal poverty. Though dairy is a bulwark of the state’s agricultural industry, typical wages are just $9 hourly, around the state’s minimum wage. The high-stress workplaces serve volatile milk-market demands through constantly rotating production shifts, rushing to fill orders for pickup each noon.
Describing the frenzied pace of the farm work schedule, one interviewee reported, “I feel very rushed all the time and that makes the work very dangerous. I can have an accident if I am too tired and if I am not careful.”
Workers reported they had often been denied legally mandated break times. Low wages lead to constant pressure to work overtime hours. About 28 percent said they had “knowingly experienced at least one instance of wage theft,” though many others weren’t sure whether they had been shorted on their paychecks because they were unsure how their schedules were calculated. Some said their wages were docked to pay for their own protective gear.
Despite their crucial role in the farming economy, workers are socially alienated. Researchers found that about 60 percent reported feeling “isolated,” 80 percent reported “feeling depressed.”
Segregation makes the workforce even more vulnerable. Workplaces are divided by ethnicity. Women, typically assigned to caretaking jobs feeding and cleaning up after calves, reported being targeted with systematic sexual harassment.
Some interviewees spoke of managers’ lobbing epithets at migrant workers like “stupid Mexicans.” One worker, Federico, reflected, “Even though we don’t know English, we know when the boss talks to us in a rude way. We might not know the language and the words, but our hearts know it and feel it.”
Dairy is one of the most hazardous food industries; the state documented 69 farmworker fatalities between 2006 and 2016 alone. About two in three workers reported experiencing at least one occupational injury, mostly related to animal confrontations during the herding, grooming, or feeding process. Staffing levels at most dairies are not federally monitored. The vast majority of the dairy workforce, mostly immigrants, are on farms that are technically too small to qualify for jurisdiction under the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration. With most farms using fewer than 100 cows, the industry and national market are both diffuse and deeply consolidated.
Workers’ linguistic marginalization compounds their struggles with unsafe working conditions: “Most reported the injury to their boss, but some were too afraid or were not confident enough in their English skills to tell their boss what had happened.”
Crispin Hernandez recalled that during his first days on the job, “a cow stepped on my hand. The owner and her daughter were there and they saw that my hand was bleeding and they didn’t care. They didn’t tell me to go to the hospital and they didn’t give me a day off…. Working with cows is very dangerous, and the owners don’t care.”
Fifty-five-year-old Lazaro said he had been charged by a bull he was never trained to handle properly, resulting in stitches and fractured ribs.
“I was lucky I didn’t lose my eye,” he said. He kept quiet hoping to keep his job, but after the injury forced him off the job for days, he lost his $500-a-week job without compensation.
Today Lazaro and Hernandez seek to organize dairy workers in hopes of forcing the dominant coops and major buyers for the state’s market to help push up labor standards across the supply chain.
The campaign is currently pressuring upscale Chobani Yogurt label and the Dairy Cooperatives of America, which represents about 14,000 producers nationwide. A similar initiative to mobilize dairy workers has made steady progress in Vermont, where the grassroots organization Migrant Justice is working toward securing a deal with Ben and Jerry’s.
The New York campaign deals with the reality that government agencies are generally ignorant of dairy workers’ struggles or hostile to them. About 40 percent of workers surveyed said they had been detained at least once. The Trump administration has vowed, meanwhile, to keep regulations lax and further tighten the increasingly severe northern border patrol.
Carly Fox, an organizer based Upstate with Worker Justice Center says:
If you have a 100 percent undocumented population that’s excluded…we have really big structural barriers to justice. We believe the enforcement mechanisms are so limited…. Often times, as an advocate, we see that there just is no law…or there’s a significant immigration consequence [for workers].
To enable workers to protect themselves, organizers envision a new statewide “independently monitored social responsibility program,” which would allow for collective bargaining over housing and labor conditions “set by worker-led organizations.”
Setting a higher bar across the sector gives workers leverage “to negotiate the terms of their employment, collectively and safely,” Fox says. Moreover, she stresses that decent farm owners face intense market pressures: “If we can address it a little bit more systemically, its more realistic, one farm at a time is just really hard. Farmers who are out there trying to do the right thing are trying to compete with farmers who don’t have to.”
With a fair, democratic contract, industry standards could be defined by humane farms, instead of by the bosses who treat workers like animals.