New York Law Violates Farmworkers’ Human Rights, says Columbia Law School Human Rights Clinic
Amicus brief urges NY court to ensure farmworkers receive the same basic labor protections granted to other workers
February 9, 2017, NEW YORK—New York’s exclusion of farmworkers from labor protections makes them vulnerable to exploitation and violates international human rights law, Columbia Law School’s Human Rights Clinic said in an amicus brief filed with the state court last month. The brief supports a lawsuit filed by New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) against New York State, challenging the farmworker exclusion as a violation of the state constitution and its protections for the rights to organize and collectively bargain—rights which are also fundamental human rights.
“New York’s farmworker exclusion reproduces the historical legacy of racism in the U.S. agricultural industry and disproportionately impacts largely immigrant and non-English speaking communities,” said Joanne Kim ’17, a student working in international and local human rights advocacy and co-author of the brief. “It is long past time that New York stand with farmworkers advocating for better conditions by ensuring strong protections for their right to organize.”
NYCLU’s case, Hernandez v. State of New York, was filed in the New York State Supreme Court on behalf of Crispin Hernandez, who was fired from his job as a dairy worker after his employer discovered he was meeting with co-workers and organizers to discuss workplace conditions, even though the meetings occurred after hours at a personal residence. The suit was also filed on behalf of the Workers’ Center of Central New York and Worker Justice Center of New York, grassroots low-wage worker organizations whose staff and members face retaliation from employers for efforts to defend farmworkers’ rights.
International human rights law protects the rights to organize and collectively bargain for all workers, including farmworkers. Accordingly, governments must ensure that farmworkers are able to exercise their rights in practice by preventing interference with these rights and providing adequate remedies for violations. Governments must also guarantee freedom of association on an equal basis, regardless of a worker’s race, ethnicity, language, or immigration status.
“New York is violating its own Bill of Rights by specifically excluding farmworkers from labor protections without any adequate alternative, and flouting firmly established international human rights law that protects workers’ rights to organize and collectively bargain,” explained Maria Emilia Mamberti LL.M. ‘17, a human rights lawyer from Argentina who co-authored the brief.
The outcome of this case could affect the state’s approximately 60,000 farmworkers, who contribute to making farming a multi-billion dollar industry in New York, a national leader in farm produce. Many farmworkers live and work in hazardous and demeaning conditions, earn below-poverty wages, and are denied basic workplace protections like overtime pay, worker’s compensation, and a day off per week.
“The state’s failure to protect farmworkers sends the message that the rights of the people who put food on the table of every New Yorker just don’t matter,” said Carina De La Paz ’18, a student specializing in human rights in the United States and co-author of the brief. “Without the right to organize, it is difficult for farmworkers to improve their workplace conditions. Strong protections for the right to organize are essential because they ensure that the power to advocate for fair conditions is in the farmworkers’ hands.”
The State of New York, despite being the defendant in the case, has opted not to oppose the suit, recognizing that the exclusion impairs the fundamental right of farmworkers to organize in violation of the State’s Equal Protection Clause. However, the New York Farm Bureau, a statewide lobbying group for agribusiness, has intervened in the case to seek to have plaintiffs’ claims dismissed.
Benjamin Hoffman, Senior Clinical Teaching Fellow at Columbia Law School, and JoAnn Kamuf Ward, Deputy Director of the Human Rights in the U.S. Project at Columbia’s Human Rights Institute, provided supervision and were co-counsel on the brief.
Benjamin Hoffman, Columbia Law School Human Rights Clinic
(212) 854-3954, firstname.lastname@example.org
The Human Rights Clinic is an intensive year long course directed by Sarah Knuckey, the Lieff Cabraser Heimann and Bernstein Clinical Associate Professor of Human Rights and the faculty co-director of the Human Rights Institute at Columbia Law School, as well as by Senior Clinical Teaching Fellow Benjamin Hoffman. The Clinic brings together human rights work, student education, critical reflection, and scholarly research. Students are trained to be strategic human rights advocates, while pursuing social justice in partnership with civil society and communities, and advancing human rights methodologies and scholarship. For more information, visit http://web.law.columbia.edu/clinics/human-rights-clinic.