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Report: NYS' dairy industry growing on backs of illegal immigrants

WRVO's Ellen Abbott

A new report chronicles the issues facing undocumented workers at dairy farms across Upstate New York. The study contends that growth of the state's dairy industry in recent years has been achieved on the backs of immigrant farm workers who have few labor rights.

Gretchen Purser, a sociology professor at Syracuse University, says the report she co-authored, called "Milked, Immigrant Dairy Farmworkers in New York State,” is the first major analysis of the way immigrant workers live on upstate New York dairy farms. The study’s researchers questioned 88 immigrants, most of them illegal, at more than 50 farms in Western, Central and Northern New York.

Of all the comments immigrants made, Purser said this one hit her the most: "We came here to work, but not like slaves.”

Purser says the study found the issues facing these immigrant farm workers include wage theft, long working hours with no days off, poor living conditions, and the inability to organize. She says these workers also are very isolated, not leaving farms for weeks at a time, because of a lack of transportation. They also feel fear during uncertain political times.

"They’re terrified of immigration enforcement and that’s heightened by the fact that within 100 miles of the border, immigration has increased ability to engage in enforcement activities," Purser says. "So there’s a lot of fear, a lot of fear out there.”

Advocates for immigrant workers want the report to be more than an educational document for the general public. They want the state and large dairy processors like Chobani to know what’s happening on dairy farms.

"We’re really trying to get attention of the state and these large dairy processors to take greater awareness and action on this exploited population,” she says.

Purser says these workers are often invisible, and deserve the same labor rights as other workers in New York state.