BUFFALO – Estimates put the number of migrant and seasonal farmworkers in the United States at approximately 3 million. Hand harvesting about 85 percent of fruits and vegetables, migrant farm laborers put food on the table for America’s families.

In New York State there are approximately 80,000 farmworkers. About 47,000 of them are migratory – harvesting fruit in Western New York and along the Great Lakes, planting and harvesting vegetables in Central New York, trimming grapes in the Finger Lakes, working in nurseries on Long Island. Farmworkers live and work in almost every one of New York’s 62 counties.

Despite their vital role, these workers are denied many of the same labor protections other workers receive – a day of rest per week, overtime pay, disability insurance, collective bargaining rights. Farmworkers are specifically excluded from the National Labor Relations Act.

They are provided substandard housing and medical care, if any at all. They are often victim to discrimination and violence in the communities in which they live and work.

The National Agricultural Workers Survey (NAWS) found that three-quarters of U.S. farmworkers earn less than $10,000 per year, with three out of five farmworker families living below the poverty level.

Farmworkers are often subjected to pesticides, dangerous farm equipment, and lack of drinking water. The Environmental Protection Agency has estimated that pesticides alone poison 300,000 farmworkers every year.

To put an end to these unfair conditions, New York’s farmworkers are organizing to pass the Farmworker Fair Labor Practices Act (S 3351) in the state Legislature. The law would establish such rights as collective bargaining, overtime pay, days off and disability insurance, and would close some of the loopholes that allow employers to circumvent safety regulations.

Building momentum for S 3351’s passage, Justice for Farm Workers, the Rural and Migrant Ministry, and farmworkers from across the state are organizing a statewide pilgrimage. On May 1, at the home of Harriet Tubman in Auburn, farmworkers and their allies will begin a 10-day walk to the capitol in Albany. There they will hold a “Harvest of Hope” 24-hour vigil as they wait to see what the Legislature does.

Arturo Rodriguez, leader of the United Farm Workers of America, and Lucas Benitez, leader of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in Florida, will join the march and Albany vigil. Baldemar Valasquez, of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, will speak at the opening rally and dinner in Rochester on April 30.

Organizers are urging that letters be sent to New York legislators demanding passage of S 3351. To participate in the pilgrimage, contact Jim Schmidt at (585) 325-3053 (jschmidt@wnylc.com) or Bill Abom at (585) 637-8360 (rmmwestny@yahoo.com). Visit www.ruralmigrantministry.org for more information, including a list of towns the pilgrimage will pass through.

The author can be reached at pww@pww.org.