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Undocumented immigrant labor to be underscored by rally on ‘Dairy Day’ at state fair

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SYRACUSE — Milk cows, not workers.

That’s the slogan visitors to the New York State Fair will see today on signs waved by activists outside the entrance of the Syracuse fairgrounds. The rally, organized by the Workers’ Center of Central New York, will shine a spotlight on the estimated 2,600 undocumented immigrants working on dairy farms in upstate New York — many of whom now live in the north country. The grass-roots organization will point out that, although these Latino workers supply labor needed for New York to lead the nation in Greek yogurt production, many of them don’t enjoy basic rights that Americans take for granted.

Few of these immigrant workers are expected to attend today’s rally, which is strategically held on “Dairy Day” at the fair, said Rebecca Fuentes, organizer for the Syracuse-based organization. That’s because most of them don’t own vehicles or have driver’s licenses, she said, and some work seven days a week.

Legislation that would grant undocumented immigrant farmworkers protections has been considered at the state and federal levels this year, Ms. Fuentes said, but no measures have been signed into law. The state Farmworker Fair Labor Practices Act, for example, was passed by the Assembly in May but blocked from a vote in the Senate. That bill would have granted farmworkers mandatory overtime pay, collective bargaining rights and unemployment insurance. And though immigrant workers are optimistic about the federal immigration reform bill passed by the Senate in June, which includes a three-year agricultural visa program, the legislation has not been voted on by the House of Representatives.

Overcrowding and poor living conditions have been reported to the Workers’ Center by immigrants at some dairy farms, said Ms. Fuentes, who makes visits to farms in Central New York. An anonymous immigrant worker at a Lewis County dairy farm recently was interviewed by the organization about living conditions there.

“What is happening to us is alarming,” the worker said in a news release. “Imagine eight or nine people living in a small trailer. Many times, workers have to sleep on the floor because our employers do not even care that we lack a bed to rest in after 12-hour shifts. The housing is in such bad condition, with cockroaches and bed bugs. Basically, my health is at risk here.”

The worker continued, “I want to call on consumers to think about the product they take home from the grocery store. Ask yourself under what conditions the milk is being produced.”

The majority of farms in the north country, however, provide adequate living arrangements for immigrant workers, said Arthur F. Baderman, agricultural educator at Cornell Cooperative Extension of Jefferson County. He was surprised when he learned about the living conditions described by the anonymous worker at the Lewis County dairy farm.

“There are isolated issues of farmers taking advantage of people, but I don’t think there are any farmers that would condone those kind of living conditions,” he said. “It’s important that these workers feel empowered and proud of what they’re doing.”

Most dairy farmers hope federal immigration reform is passed soon, Mr. Baderman said, so they can be sure immigrant workers are employed on farms legally. Often farmers are unsure whether documents presented by their workers are legal.

“Employers want to be legal, and they’re frustrated with Congress right now for taking no action on these issues,” Mr. Baderman said.

Some dairy farms that seek to expand milk production need to employ more immigrant workers to do so, Ms. Fuentes said. But she said they often fail to ensure adequate housing is available.

“They bring in workers to get more cows and produce more milk,” she said. “They’re putting a lot of people into a house or trailer, and most of the time owners don’t care how workers are living, or if they have beds. They don’t take responsibility for the housing, and that’s the norm.”

Ms. Fuentes said she hopes visitors will leave the state fair today with a better understanding of the immigrant labor needed to produce dairy products.

“We want people to realize that the milk and cheese you’re eating comes from labor being exploited,” she said. “New York is the number one Greek yogurt producer in the nation, but is that success being shared with the people who are doing this work, or are they being milked for all they are worth?”

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