Propelled by the much-heralded “yogurt boom,” New York’s dairy production and processing industry generates $14 billion a year and is the star sector of the state’s agricultural economy. But a new study, to be released today at the start of National Dairy Month, finds that the immigrant workers who provide milking labor on which the industry heavily depends are themselves being “milked.”
The study, Milked: Immigrant Dairy Farmworkers in New York State, is based upon a face-to-face survey with 88 workers across 53 different farms located in the Central, Northern, and Western regions of New York State. It was coauthored by a team of academic scholars and community leaders: Carly Fox of the Worker Justice Center of New York, Rebecca Fuentes of the Workers’ Center of Central New York, Fabiola Ortiz Valdez and Gretchen Purser, both of Syracuse University, and Kathleen Sexsmith of Cornell University.
The report presents a concerning picture of the working and living conditions on New York dairy farms, and it does so by highlighting the rarely-heard voices of the workers themselves. As one worker proclaimed, “We immigrants do the dirty, heavy, and low paid work behind the gallons of milk that you and your family consume.” Indeed, as the industry has grown and consolidated, more and more farmers have turned to undocumented Latino immigrants to fill positions in their 24-hour milking parlors. These workers are acutely aware of their deportability and vulnerability to exploitation. “We came here to work,” a worker objected, “but not like slaves.” Nine out of ten workers surveyed believe that their employers care more about the cows than about workers’ well-being.
Like all agricultural workers in New York, dairy farmworkers are excluded from a number of basic labor rights and protections, including the right to organize, the right to a day of rest, and the right to overtime pay.
The researchers found that, on average, dairy farmworkers work 12 hours per day, six days per week. Without a right to a guaranteed day off, it is not uncommon for workers to work seven days a week, sometimes for years on end. That is the case for Alvaro, a 25 year-old worker from Mexico, who works 85 hours per week. When he and his coworkers complained to their boss about their need for a break, they were threatened with being fired.
Despite such a crushing work schedule, dairy workers also face considerable economic hardship. Their wages hover at or near the minimum wage. Moreover, twenty-eight percent of workers surveyed have knowingly experienced at least one instance of wage theft. Given the frequency with which farmworkers admit to not understanding their pay stubs, the authors suspect the actual rate of wage theft to be much higher.
Working conditions on dairy farms are dangerous and can be fatal. Sixty-nine farmworker fatalities have been reported on New York dairies in the decade between 2006 and 2016. And fully two-thirds of the workers surveyed had experienced one or more injuries while on the job. Sixty-eight percent of those injured said the injury was serious enough to require medical attention. Workers reported kicks to the head, crushed limbs, eye injuries due to chemical splashes, falls sustained on slippery parlor floors, lacerations from equipment, and broken and fractured bones. These fatalities and injuries were, on the whole, preventable. But dairy farms are relatively unregulated workplaces compared to other industries, and few farmworkers receive adequate training. Indeed, a third of the workers surveyed report having received no training at all. “I barely had training, like one minute,” one worker explained. “I figured it out after some time. One just simply has to learn as they go.”