Aliana Varvaloucas will tell you that her colleagues have seen “broken everything” in the homes of the dairy farmworkers she represents.
The Farm Worker Law Project’s managing attorney ticks off a list of damage, decay, and vermin that endangers human health and safety: broken windows, doors, floors, walls, stoves, water heaters, heaters, roofs, cabinets; slanted floors, sewage in showers and going into the ground around the housing; soft wet spongy floors, no locks on doors or windows; flies and bugs, broken steps; rooms with no windows, wall-to-wall rugs that haven’t been cleaned in years, filthy furniture, beg bugs, mosquitos, skunks living under housing, mice, rodents and rats.
While many who help farmworkers find the conditions appalling, she claims that workers rarely complain about their employer-provided living quarters, which include ageing mobile homes and farmhouses or, in some cases, dormitories in the barns themselves. einsteinerupload of. Without work or a place to live, they may be deported, as advocates estimate that 90 percent are from outside the United States, with the vast majority being undocumented. There appears to be no simple solution for workers whose bosses are also their landlords. The problem is exacerbated by a lack of oversight for dairy worker housing due to legal limitations, which advocates are working to change.
“There are six different farmworker housing statutes, and none of them apply to dairy housing,” said Varvaloucas, who is based in New Paltz. “Dairy farmworkers get lost in the shuffle. There is a massive legal loophole.”
Both in Albany and in Washington, there is some effort to create housing oversight. The New York Farm Bureau has requested that Governor Kathy Hochul restore $400,000 to its budget to support farm-provided housing inspections. In Washington, the bipartisan Farm Workforce Modernization Act was passed by lawmakers in the United States House of Representatives, which would move year-round dairy workers out of the shadows and into the H-2A visa programme, which requires the state Department of Health to inspect worker housing.
Advocates such as Varvaloucas argue that these measures are only the beginning of a much-needed overhaul for dairy farmworkers, who are isolated across vast swaths of the state’s rural landscape.
Ideally, she would like to see comprehensive immigration reform, but for the time being, she and other farmworker advocates would like the state to require inspections of all employer-provided housing.
“Inspection isn’t perfect, and there are problems at H-2A camps as well,” Varvaloucas said. “However, at least in those camps, there is a visit, and there is some kind of third-party authority overseeing things.”
Of course, not all farms provide workers with dilapidated, unsafe, or unsanitary housing. Immigrant advocates acknowledge that some farm owners welcome workers by providing adequate housing. One Saratoga County farmer, for example, has been identified by county social workers as having worker apartments as well as “his own home.”
He recently spoke with the Times Union, requesting anonymity in order to protect his undocumented workers from deportation. He believes that providing decent and safe housing is a wise investment.
“They’re decent people,” he said. “It’s worthwhile. They are extremely valuable to us.”
The Saratoga Immigration Coalition’s Terry Diggory agreed. He stated that these employees are trained in animal care.
“What the farmers really value are people who already have that experience and can supervise a herd,” said Diggory, who drives workers to appointments and on errands on a regular basis. “They take care of medical problems that arise, identify diseases, attend calves’ births, there is a wide range of things that the workers must be specialists in.”
They must also milk the herd twice or three times per day.
Workers on a Saratoga County farm care for, feed, and milk a herd of over 1,000 cows. That dairyman fully supports the bill in Washington that would incorporate these year-round employees into the seasonal or migrant worker H-2A programme. Currently, that programme allows workers to travel from their home country to work for a limited time period, such as during an apple orchard harvest or during the summer at a hotel in Lake George. Dairy farms cannot currently participate because they are year-round operations.
“The country requires assistance,” the farmer stated. “We are eager to receive assistance. We can’t find it anywhere. … I’d hoped to persuade the government to do something simple and effective. There is currently no programme available to us.”
However, Emma Kreyche, advocacy director for the Worker Justice Center of New York, which operates in 33 counties, believes the act creates a new problem. It will bind the worker to a single farm. If they leave or are fired, they will be deported as well as lose their home.
“As a worker’s rights organisation, we are categorically opposed to the expansion of the H-2A programme, not because we dislike H-2A workers, but because the H-2A programme has a history of labour abuses,” she said. “It’s true that H-2A housing is more strictly regulated. But for an employer to say, “If we get access to the visa programme, we’ll improve our housing,” is just plain wrong. It’s a very problematic solution to a problem that could be solved through better state regulation and oversight in worker housing more broadly.”
This is a critical issue in rural areas throughout the state, which, according to the US Department of Agriculture, is one of the top five dairy producers in the country. According to the state Farm Bureau, there are over 3,600 dairy farms in the state that produce 15 billion pounds of milk from 625,000 cows each year. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, nearly 26,000 farm labourers work 150 days or more on farms, including dairy farms. There was no breakdown figure for dairy farm labourers.
According to a 2019 study on New York dairy farmworkers conducted by Kreyche’s Workers Justice Center, 97 percent of dairy farmworkers live in farm-provided housing. Of those polled, 58 percent had bug or insect infestations in their homes, 48 percent did not have door locks, 32 percent had holes in their walls or floors, and another 32 percent had poor ventilation.
Among other things, the report recommended that the state “ensure that all farmworkers live in safe and dignified housing.”
“Dairy housing must meet all housing requirements and should provide safe, sanitary housing regardless of immigration status,” said Steve Ammerman, a Farm Bureau spokesman, in an email. “Local code enforcement and health departments have jurisdiction and can be called in if there is a complaint. If a problem arises, the New York Farm Bureau encourages workers to notify the appropriate authorities. The same is true for workers’ rights organisations. They are not permitted to make allegations without first reporting them to authorities. If they do not, I will question why.”
Dairy farmworkers, according to Kreyche, do not want their advocates to report the conditions because they fear punishment.
“I went to a farm near Albany where workers were housed in essentially a cesspool without proper sewage,” Kreyche explained. “There was a shattered window, exposed wiring, and electricity running through extension cords. All of this is illegal. You should contact the local building inspector. But the question is, what will be the outcome? First, you must feel supported or empowered, empowered enough to not be concerned about what will happen.”
Even supportive farmers discover that their employees are hesitant to report a housing issue.
“They aren’t very good at telling me what’s wrong, so I have to go through and check the house on a regular basis,” the Saratoga County farmer explained.
He recalls a time when one of his employees’ apartment’s heat was broken.
“I asked how long this had been going on, and they looked at you as if they didn’t want to admit it or bother me,” he explained. “Everything has to be kept track of.”
That is one of the recommendations in the report “Creating Positive Workplaces: A Guidebook for Dairy Producers” by Cornell College of Agriculture and Life Sciences’ Farmworker Program. It recommends a monthly inspection that includes a 27-item checklist that includes checking that the stove works, the cabinets aren’t broken, and the toilet isn’t in need of repair. It also includes ensuring that there are enough beds for workers, as well as locks on doors, heat, and electricity.
“Good housing contributes to worker satisfaction and increased farm productivity,” according to the guidebook. “Some farmers place a high priority on providing good-quality housing, while others find housing to be a necessary but challenging aspect of farm management. This situation can be difficult for both the owners of the property and the occupants. Given that dairy farmers typically provide housing for their employees, having clear housing expectations for standards of care, maintenance, visitors, and security issues is critical.”
In addition, Cornell is training inspectors who will visit farms and collect housing data in a “non-subjective, non-regulatory” manner.
Nonetheless, Varvaloucas believes that the power dynamic between the worker and the farmer makes the workers vulnerable.
“Even with an anonymous complaint, an employer can easily determine who called a lawyer or local code enforcement,” Varvaloucas said. “This is why annual inspections would be extremely beneficial. They relieve the worker of the burden of coming forward because there is now a third-party enforcement agency that inspects the housing at regular intervals. Owners should have no trouble passing inspection if their housing is up to code.”