Associate Professor Margaret Gray's new book examines the life and labor conditions of Hudson Valley farm workers.
There can be 80- to 90-hour workweeks with no overtime pay, and no day of rest. Expectations of productivity are high, even in extreme heat and dangerous weather conditions. The salary, often just 25 or 50 cents above minimum wage, rivals a teenager’s take-home pay from a part-time job. This does not describe the economic obstacles of every farmworker in the Hudson Valley, an area that supplies much of the fresh produce for many of New York City’s finest restaurants and farmer’s markets. But it’s a story that Margaret Gray, Ph.D., associate professor of political science, heard more often than not while researching for her book Labor and the Locavore: The Making of a Comprehensive Food Movement, published by the University of California Press.
Through the new alternative food movement, there is a heightened awareness of the humane treatment of animals and the methods used to produce healthy, fresh food. But farm labor practices, and the workers who grow and harvest the food, have gone largely unnoticed. This motivated Dr. Gray to embark on a more than decade-long journey interviewing hundreds of farmworkers and farmer owners—knocking on doors, making calls and gaining the trust of a population who seemingly gained no benefit from talking with her.
“All but one farmworker agreed to talk with us,” Dr. Gray remembers, and, although she faced some resistance from farmer owners, the ones who agreed to talk were very candid in their responses.
The interviews confirmed that the poor labor conditions are tied to an ethnic shift to employing immigrant Latino workers, for a variety of reasons. After the expansion of immigration legislation in the mid-1980s, farmers began profiting from undocumented Latino farmworkers who had no knowledge of the English language or labor protection laws, but who had a willingness to sacrifice and work at a grueling pace. Although the media often portrays these immigrant workers as “stealing American jobs,” there has emerged an effort by farmers, along with the U.S. Department of Labor, to recruit these undocumented workers, with the hope that they don’t become Americanized.
Although these jobs are paid poorly and leave no room for advancement, “most of the farmworkers I interviewed enjoy working the land, and felt like they were doing important work,” Dr. Gray said. “But they felt devalued and disrespected and their stories needed to be told…They were eager to have someone take an interest in them.” One woman’s story in particular left a lasting impression on Dr. Gray: She paid $15,000 to go from El Salvador to New York. Mindful of her debts, she was willing to work under any conditions and lived in isolation from the rest of the world, with the constant fear of being replaced or, even worse, deported. Her children were born in the United States, and she has used every ounce of effort to ensure that they have a better life.
“It sounds like a traditional immigrant story, sacrificing to pursue the American dream in the hopes that your children will have it better. But we should be past these types of stories,” Dr. Gray said. “These workers may be noncitizens, but they are in America, doing the jobs of American workers. Ultimately, how we treat these workers is tied to our own livelihoods.”
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