The findings in this report are based on face-to-face, semi-structured interviews conducted in 2014and 2015 with 88 immigrant dairy farmworkers on 53 different dairy farms in New York State. We used a combination of snowball sampling and direct worker outreach, sometimes arriving on farms where we had no prior knowledge of, or relationship to, the workers. We made a deliberate effort to survey workers on farms across New York State’s Central (13 farms), Eastern (3 farms), Western (30 farms), and Northern (7 farms) dairy-producing regions. The interviews consisted of 225 questions covering participants’ demographic backgrounds, work histories, wages and working conditions, hosing conditions, social integration, encounters with immigration enforcement agents, and interests in organizing for change. We also conducted five focus groups with dairy farmworkers who lead local organizing efforts. All interviews and focus groups were conducted in Spanish. The report is also informed by primary documents, academic articles, and other published literature on dairy farm labor. Most of the workers are identified by pseudonyms. All quotes that appear without other citation are form our interviews.
Immigrant dairy farmworker are a hidden population that is difficult to access because of their vulnerable immigration status, work schedules, and geographic isolation on rural farms. There is no database of the population of dairy farmworkers in New York from which our sample could be drawn, making if difficult to determine with precision their total numbers and socio-demographic profile. This study was realized through the time-consuming and labour-intensive process of direct worker outreach, without employer mediation. As a community-based participatory action research project, farmworkers were actively involved in the study itself, helping to develop the interview questions, lead focus groups, and transcribe and analyse the data. They also contribute some of the photographs used in this report.
Producing milk is a fully modern business, unrecognizable in comparison to the dairying of even a few decades ago. Today’s dairy farmers strive for growth, consolidation, efficiency, and automation to stay competitive in a globalized sector increasingly controlled by multinational corporations. Yet, as the technology and science revolutionizing the dairy industry accelerate at a breakneck pace, a race to the bottom is occurring in the treatment and working conditions of the immigrant laborers who toil in milking parlors and barns.
Summary of Findings
Milking Cows, Milking Workers
› Sixty-two percent report that American workers are treated better than the Latino immigrant workers on the farm, particularly because they are perceived to do easier work for better pay.
› Forty-eight percent report that they have suffered bullying or discrimination in the workplace. One fifth report that their boss, manager or other workers have made explicit reference to their ethnicity or citizenship status in a demeaning or intimidating manner.
› Twenty-eight percent of workers surveyed report aggressive, disrespectful, or inconsistent behavior on the part of their boss.
› Eighty-eight percent of workers surveyed believe their employers care more about the cows than about workers’ well-being.
Long Hours for Low Pay
› Immigrant dairy farmworkers’ earnings hover just above the minimum wage. Workers surveyed most typically earned $9/hour (at a time when the minimum wage was $8.00/hour in 2014 and $8.75/hour in 2015).
› On average, they work 12 hours per day. Like all agricultural workers in New York, they are excluded from the right to a day of rest and the right to overtime pay.
› Forty-five percent feel rushed on the job. Breaks are sometimes as short as five minutes long in a 12-hour workday.
› Twenty-eight percent of immigrant dairy farmworkers have knowingly experienced at least one instance of wage theft; still others suspect it, but have difficulty interpreting their pay stubs and do not know for certain. Wage theft experiences include denial of a final paycheck, being paid for scheduled hours and not for extra hours worked, unpaid “training,” or non-reimbursement for personal protective equipment.
› Two-thirds of dairy farmworkers surveyed have experienced one or more injuries while on the job. Sixty-eight percent of those injured said the damage was serious enough to require medical attention. 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.
› One-third of workers received no job training of any kind. Of those who were trained, that training was often insufficient either because it was brief (as little as ten minutes), offered in English, or conducted by immigrant co-workers who were not trained to educate others thoroughly.
› Farmworkers’ principal safety concerns are: aggressive cows and bulls (as reported by 71% of interviewees), operating heavy machinery (35%), using chemicals (18%), and slippery or insecure conditions of farm working environments (11%). These dangers are exacerbated by the lack of job and safety training.
› More than 80% of dairy farmworkers in New York are estimated to live and work on farms with too few workers to fall under OSHA jurisdiction for inspection and sanctioning. Even though 80% of our sample works on a farm with at least 500 cows, many of these farms still do not have a sufficiently large non-family workforce to fall under OSHA’s ambit for inspections. In fact, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration is prohibited from regulating small farms, even when someone dies on the job.
Stuck in Place
› Ninety-seven percent of workers live in on-farm housing provided by their employers. These accommodations are usually old farm houses or trailers, but sometimes they are makeshift rooms off the barn or milking parlor.
› Dairy farmworkers often live in substandard housing: 58% report bug or insect infestations in their homes, 48% have no locks on their doors, 32% have holes in their walls or floors, and 32% have insufficient ventilation.
› Due to their fear of immigration enforcement, inability to obtain a NY driver’s license, and/or long work hours, immigrant dairy farmworkers leave the farm premises, on average, as infrequently as once every eleven days. Some leave only for medical emergencies, resulting in almost total immobility and the widespread feeling of being “locked up” [encerrado]
› Fifty-seven percent say they do not feel any sense of belonging to the local community. Sixty-two percent report feeling isolated and 80% report feeling depressed.
Summary of Recommendations
We can improve the conditions of this vital, yet vulnerable, workforce.And farmworkers themselves, through their organizing, are leading the way with the rallying call: “milk cows, not workers.” It’s now time for the state, industry, and consumers to take action.
Governor Andrew Cuomo, the New York State Legislature, and the New York State Attorney General need to do more to protect the rights and improve the working conditions of immigrant farmworkers. They must eliminate the exemption of farmworkers from basic labor rights—including the right to organize, the right to a day off, and the right to overtime pay—allow undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses, provide oversight of workplace health and safety for dairies, and ensure that all farmworkers live in safe and dignified housing with the right to receive visitors.
Dairy companies should implement and enforce worker-led codes of conduct for ethical labor practices for their fresh milk suppliers, purchasing only from those farms that participate in rigorous labor rights monitoring conducted independent of the dairy purchaser or supplier.
Several model programs already exist that could be adapted to, and put into place in, the New York dairy industry.
Finally, consumers of milk and milk products must use their voices to push for change, holding prominent dairy companies accountable for working conditions throughout the supply chain.