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.”