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Throwing ’Em a Bone

The perennial push to gain equal rights for New York’s farm laborers known as Farmworker Advocacy Day [Newsfront, May 1], culminated this year when the state Senate passed two bills granting farmworkers basic labor protections. But Richard Witt, executive director of the Rural and Migrant Ministry, said he wants more than token gestures—he wants the Legislature to address the real issues.

The two new bills, sponsored by Sen. Olga Mendez (D, R-Bronx), require farm operators to post signs notifying laborers of their workmen’s compensation rights and to make workmen’s compensation claim forms available to farmworkers within three days of an on-the-job injury, but Witt was surprised these issues were even considered.

“These weren’t even on our radar screen,” said Witt, whose group has been advocating for farmworkers’ rights for over a decade. “We appreciate Senator Mendez’s efforts, but for the Senate to pass these on the day we were out there was really avoiding and ignoring the real injustices.”

According to Witt, the Legislature should focus its efforts on including farmworkers in the state’s labor laws. Currently, farm operators in New York are not required to grant their laborers a day of rest, overtime pay, or to provide them with disability insurance, nor are farmworkers allowed to unionize.

But, in a way, the Senate’s actions were expected, said Witt, considering the slow pace at which the Legislature has granted farmworkers even the most basic labor rights in the past; after nearly a decade of lobbying, it wasn’t until 1996 that advocates convinced state lawmakers to grant farmworkers access to clean drinking water on the job, and access to toilets wasn’t mandated until 1997.

“We’re all so focused on the ongoing struggle that I don’t think we paid much attention to the two bills,” said Witt. “If it was their intention to try to mollify us or satisfy us through the passage of those bills it wasn’t going to work, and it didn’t work.”

Witt and many others are lobbying the Senate to pass an all-inclusive farmworkers’ rights bill, also sponsored by Mendez, giving the state’s farmworkers the same labor protections enjoyed by the rest of the state’s workforce.

A similar bill has passed the Democrat-controlled Assembly for the past two years, leading many advocates to bash the Republican-controlled Senate. But Mendez said the struggle to grant farmworkers’ equal labor protections under state law should not be used for “partisan politics.”

“It is a bill that is doing something that needs to be done,” said Mendez. “The other workers do have those rights by law, and everyone should have these equal rights under law. I’m demanding parity for them, not special treatment.”

—Travis Durfee

Chris Sheilds

Please Don’t Eat The Fishies

About 50 environmentalists, children and neighborhood residents took part in the sixth annual Fishing for Justice, a day of canoeing, catch-and-release fishing, storytelling and other estuary-related events at Island Creek Park in Albany’s South End on Saturday (May 10). As many people from Albany’s low income and minority communities supplement their diets with the fish caught from the Hudson River, a number of environmental groups spent the day educating people about the dangers of eating contaminated fish. The groups also launched their boat, the Samuel Schuyler, a 23-foot motorized craft to further similar educational efforts and to help test the Hudson for contaminants. Schuyler was a freed slave who operated a successful tugboat business in Albany’s South End. The Arbor Hill Environmental Justice Corporation, the W. Haywood Burns Environmental Education Center, Appalachian Mountain Club and the Sierra Club sponsored the day’s events.

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