On Tuesday April 9, Vassar students and members of the Poughkeepsie community gathered for a panel discussion and march in support of farm workers’ rights. The event was titled “Shield the Fields: Equality Tour Discussion and Vigil.”
The compilation of events took place in the New England Building, starting as a panel discussion with four male and two female migrant farmers from New York State. After the discussion, the group broke into informal conversation and sign-making before they group began their march from the building and made its way through campus ending at the main arterial in Poughkeepsie with a vigil.
The discussion and vigil was part of a tour supporting justice for a farm workers campaign that started Saturday in New York City.
The event was hosted by the Poughkeepsie office of Rural & Migrant Ministry and was organized in part by Vassar students who intern at the Ministry.
According to Giselle Huerta ’16, an intern at Rural & Migrant Ministry in Poughkeepsie, “It’s the Farm Worker Equality Tour. They’re having a tour in all of New York State because these are farm workers from New York State. So they started off with a press conference in New York City and now they’re working their way up. It’s a week-long tour.”
Huerta continued, describing the farm workers who are on tour, “They’re migrant farm workers, farm workers that came here in search of jobs and what [happened] was they were exploited and they were taken advantage of.”
The panel discussion dealt with issues relating to migrant farmers’ rights with specific focus on a bill up for consideration by the New York state legislature. The bill would extend the same rights to all farm workers, both undocumented and other field workers.
One example of the inequity of workers’ rights in the farming industry was brought up by a few of the migrant farmer panel members. Migrant farmers aren’t required to have worker’s compensation for injuries on the job. This is particularly harsh, as farming is one of the most dangerous jobs available to undocumented workers.
One panel member recalled a specific example of this in his own life when he injured his hand and was ordered by a doctor to rest for a week. After two days his boss called him demanding that he return to work. When the panelist refused, due to the extreme pain in his hand and with the doctor’s orders in mind, his employer promptly fired him.
The bill being pushed on this tour, which Rural & Migrant Ministry has been promoting in other ways for months, would offer benefits like workman’s rights to migrant farm workers. It would also increase the minimum wage for workers under the age of 18 and allow for a day of rest for workers once a week.
Many spoke of the importance of this event in the great Farm Worker Equality tour in bringing these issues to light and informing those who would otherwise be unaware of the struggles of farm workers, as well as personalizing the issue for students.
As Huerta stated, “Hopefully [those who attended the event] realize that these issues are pretty close to where we are. People feel very distant from the idea of farm workers and migrant farm workers… you can go 30 minutes upstate and there are farm workers there.”
One member of the Migrant Farmer panel echoed this idea while also supporting the assertion that farm workers’ rights are human rights.
He explained, “It’s about human rights. It’s about the change. It’s about a lost people. No one thinks about the people behind the food that we eat. It’s about thinking about the people who are behind all the things we use. We are real. We are real people. We are supposed to fit into the Constitution.”
Another intern, Abby Nathanson ’14 agreed. She further developed the argument that Americans are out of touch with the issue of migrant farm workers’ rights. “People think the US is a place where this wouldn’t happen. People think ‘Oh this would be in Bolivia’. No one thinks of this as an actual issue here, but it is. Nothing that [the panel described] today is illegal.”
Many of the panel members themselves also retold their personal journeys towards understanding the lives of migrant farm workers. Some audience members told stories of visiting farms and experiencing the brutal living and working conditions for many migrant farm workers that are, in almost every respect outside of employment and their labor rights, just like themselves.
They also expressed feelings of optimism and hope in seeing so many young people at the event.
Nathanson qualified the goals of the movement and clarified this specific movement from others more generally. “What we’re trying to do is make the human rights abuses that are happening be illegal. To my knowledge, there is no legislature to enforce this bill or any special consideration for undocumented workers. They’re still going to have a lot of problems.”
As the panel discussion wound down, students, other member of the Vassar, and Poughkeepsie residents, joined the members of the panel and gathered around poster boards and markers to make signs for the vigil. At 4:30 p.m. the group left New England Building and made its way north through campus headed for the arterial. The group hoped that the signs would serve to both show the world their solidarity with farm workers and inform passersby about this issue.
Generally, Huerta spoke positively of the event. “The fact that we’re having a panel discussion is saying that people are willing to share their stories.”
Nathanson agreed. “I think it’s really gone great. I think that means that people do care about it.” She continued, “People had questions. People didn’t get all academic about it. They were like, ‘Pragmatically what can we do to help?’”