When Workers Are Enslaved

Guest Commentary

Volume CV, No. 5May, 2005

Jim Schmidt

Lots of us think we have bad bosses, but imagine if your boss held you hostage to your job at gunpoint. Three years ago, six Mexican farmworkers found themselves in such a position. The workers had been promised good agricultural jobs — and so they made the perilous journey to the U.S. But once they were at a farmworker camp in upstate Western New York, they were told that they had to pay off $2,500 in transportation debt and payments for food, shelter and transportation. They were forced to work from 50 to 70 hours per week without pay. They were not allowed to leave the camp and each night armed guards patrolled the housing site. But this story has a happy ending. The six were able to escape late at night after guards had made their last rounds. The smugglers and crew leaders all pleaded guilty to trafficking and forced labor in federal court and are now facing jail time. Farmworker Legal Services has filed a civil action for back wages and housing violations. This may just be the tip of the iceberg as more workers are being brought illegally into New York State.

New York State ranks tenth in the nation for the use of migrant farmworkers. Central and Western New York has nearly 50 percent of the total migrant population of 80,000 workers. The migrant population includes both seasonal and migrant workers plus dairy and packing shed workers. The migrant population is composed of workers from Mexico, Central America, Haiti and Jamaica plus workers from the South and Southwest of the United States. The workers range in age from 13 to 60 with the majority of workers under 30. In recent years there has been an increase in female farmworkers, many who are brought here without a partner or family.

In the new millennium, migrant and seasonal farmworkers continue to be the most oppressed class in our society. Little has changed to improve the living and working environment of migrant workers or their families. Farmworkers remain the hidden and forgotten poor, the constituency of no one. Migrant and seasonal farmworkers are the lowest paid, worst housed workers in society today. The average family income for agricultural workers is less than $6,000 per year and that is for a working family of four. Farmworkers have little access to health care or to education. The average number of years of schooling is eight years. The vast majority of farmworkers are paid at minimum wage with no overtime pay and workers are expected to work six to seven days per week. The average workday begins at 6 and may go to 7 or 8 in the evening. A 70-hour workweek is common.

The majority of farmworkers are people of color who live in isolated rural labor camps. In New York, there exist more than 1,200 such migrant labor camps. The ability to leave these camps for the outside world, even to attend church, visit the corner store, buy groceries in a shopping mall, visit a theatre or go to the health clinic, is severely restricted by male bosses who control the camps. The lack of transportation, the cultural diversity of farmworkers, their language and the racism farmworkers experience in rural communities, limit their ability to access many community services. Thus, it is not surprising that farmworkers are not easily assimilated into the culture of rural white communities.

Farmworker Legal Services of New York is a statewide corporation that provides direct legal representation to all farmworkers regardless of their immigration status. We conduct outreach to migrant labor camps three or four nights a week where community legal education and training occurs. We view the law as a means to empower and organize farmworkers for social change.

For more information, visit our Web site at

Jim Schmidt is co-executive director of Farmworker Legal Services of New York.