or the past 30 years, the Cornell Migrant Program (CMP), located in Cornell's College of Human Ecology, had successfully led efforts to improve the working and living conditions of New York State's migrant farmworkers and their families. At the end of May 2004, however, while most of the Cornell community was absent from the campus, the Cornell administration made the decision to transfer Cornell Migrant Program to the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS). This decision has sparked a campus-wide controversy, with critics arguing that corporate and agribusiness interests, which have deep ties with CALS, heavily influenced the administration's decision to place CMP under the jurisdiction of CALS.
The main critic of the transfer of CMP to CALS on campus is the Farmworkers Advocacy Coalition, a student group which seeks to promote awareness on the injustices faced by farm workers,
both on domestic and international fronts. I joined the Farmworkers Advocacy Coalition earlier this school year after I attended a meeting in which Herb Engman, the former director of the Cornell Migrant Program, discussed this controversy.
Before I elaborate on the controversy, I would like to give more background information on the CMP and farmworkers. The Cornell Migrant Program was founded during the 1970s after it was leaked to the press that Cornell was involved with one of the worst migrant farm worker camps in New York State and the working conditions were found to be atrocious. The student and faculty activists demanded that Cornell establish a program to protect the rights of migrant farmworkers and improve their lives. Throughout American agricultural history, farmworkers have been brutally exploited and oppressed by powerful agricultural elites, from the times of poor white indentured servitude to African American slavery, from the importation of cheap Asian migrant labor to the exploitation of Latino labor which continues to this day. All of these workers were paid extremely low wages (slaves, of course, were unpaid) and worked in often horrible conditions. Racism has been a major feature in this exploitation.
As a result of the mass migration of African Americans from the South to the rest of the United States during the 1940s and 50s, most of the migrant farm laborers in NY State were African Americans up until the early 1990s, when agribusinesses began recruiting laborers from Latin America and the Caribbean in large numbers. About 47,000 migrant farmworkers have been arriving to NY State annually. Consequently, the majority of New York migrant farmworkers today are from Mexico. Others are from Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala and Jamaica as well as from other areas of the United States. Rather than hiring domestic labor, these agribusinesses prefer foreign laborers because they are more easily exploitable source of cheap labor; many of them are not citizens. Still, about 30% of NY farm workers are African American ("Immigrants and the Community", Cornell University 2004).
In NY State, these migrant laborers work in almost every county. They are sent from farm to farm, depending on the season, to work in the fields, to plant and harvest crops like apples, corn, onions and grapes, and, basically, to gather food that nourishes our bodies. Others work on dairy farms; these laborers are constantly transported within the state.
Migrant farmworkers work around 60 or 70 hours per week on average. Unlike other workers, they are not legally guaranteed a day of rest. Farmworkers have even been denied the minimum wage; however, recent legislation included farmworkers in a NY State minimum wage hike to $6.00 per hour. They do not receive overtime pay, the wages are often not enough for them to live decent lives and they are also denied disability insurance. Working conditions can be extremely difficult. In many cases, these workers are exposed to pesticides that are very dangerous to human health. Most do not have health insurance. They cannot even legally engage in collective bargaining in NY State ("Facts on Farm workers in New York State", Cornell University 2001).
A study on Haitian, Jamaican, and African American migrant farm workers in New York characterizes the lifestyles of these workers as a "culture of poverty" where the average annual income is between $6,000 and $8,000 and the average life expectancy is 49 years, which is in sharp contrast with the national average of 75, reflecting their poor health (Gadon, Chierici, & Rios).
American ideals of freedom and equal opportunity are a far cry from what these migrant farmworkers are experiencing. Economically and politically discriminated against, many of these Latino workers are powerless to demand fair treatment. Many of them do not speak English, which makes it difficult for them to communicate their grievances. Moreover, some of them are illegal aliens who are hired by agribusinesses that are cognizant of their illegal status; these farm employers use their illegal status as a means of controlling the workforce. If the farmworkers fail to comply with the unfair terms of labor and accept the deplorable working conditions, then the farm employer can threaten to deport the farm workers.
The exploitation can be vicious. In a recent case, a farm labor contractor was sent to prison after it was revealed that her labor practices were the equivalent of "slavery". Some of the workers, it was revealed, worked so much that they could only get around 4 hours of sleep each night. They would also be physically beaten if they tried to escape. (http://www.findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_qn4180/is_200401/ai_n10069288). This exploitation must be viewed in the context of racism. Historically, African American, Asian American, and Latino farmworkers experienced overt racism in the U.S. Today, while the agribusinesses responsible for the treatment do not use overtly racist language, they are still consciously recruiting workers from Latin America and the Caribbean and forcing them to endure unnecessary suffering. Flimsy arguments like, "At least their lives are better here when compared to their origin country", are not only insensitive but also absurd. It is against the ideals of this country to allow corporate owners and farm employers to profit multi-millions (or multi-billions) of dollars while the people doing the real work in gathering our food are treated without dignity.
Today, the racism experienced by the farmworkers in American agriculture has become covert and institutionalized. The only difference between now and the past is the rhetoric of agribusiness elites where politically incorrect language is omitted while the unjust system is kept intact.
The Cornell Migrant Program (CMP) emerged from campus activism and, for the past 30 years, successfully helped to improve the lives of farm workers. The CMP focused on education and diversity, provided English-language instruction, established programs for health and medical services, and taught farm workers how to advocate for their democratic, political, and social rights. In essence, CMP was empowering migrant farmworkers to help them better their lives. Farmworker advocacy groups, members of migrant programs in other colleges, and even officials in the state and federal governments (including the U.S. Department of Agriculture) believe that CMP was extremely successful in improving migrant farmworkers' lives. It was considered to be incomparable and a national model, with migrant programs in other U.S. states establishing programs based on CMP's example.
CMP's location in the College of Human Ecology was ideal. It had ample resources for research and a solid academic base. It received reliable funding supplies, including an annual $688,000 grant from the New York State Education Department. Significantly, Cornell only provided 10% of CMP's budget, while the majority came from external donators.
Dramatic changes have taken place since the Cornell administration decided to transfer CMP to the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS/Ag School). The Cornell administration fired Herb Engman, the director of CMP for 27 years. When CMP's staff heard of the transfer to CALS, all of them quit because they believe that CMP will not be able to function as it should in CALS. The NY State Education Department withdrew its annual $688,000 grant when it heard of the transfer to CALS. Farmworker advocacy groups in New York are furious and do not want to work with the new program in CALS.
The Ag School is heavily influenced by agribusiness interests. The very entities that are guilty of exploitative and oppressive labor practices against farmworkers now have control over the Cornell Migrant Program, a program which they have never liked. The website of the NY Farm Bureau, the representative of NY agribusiness interests, includes archived articles that heavily denounced CMP prior to the transfer to CALS.
Furthermore, Susan Henry, the Dean of CALS, who was a critical decision-maker in the transfer of CMP, is entrenched in agribusiness herself; she is currently on the board of directors for the Agrium Corporation. Agrium is a world-wide leader in the production and distribution of fertilizers and pesticides to the agricultural industry (http://www.agrium.com). Such pesticides are environmentally harmful, and exposure to them can be dangerous to one's health. Significantly, Agrium distributes these chemicals to corporations that expose them to farmworkers.
The Farmworkers Advocacy Coalition has taken action on behalf of CMP. We organized a 30-hour fast to protest the disproportionate corporate and agribusiness influences on the administration. We, then, orchestrated, in conjunction with Rural and Migrant Ministries, a "funeral" for CMP to educate the Cornell community about what happened. Our decision to hold a mock funeral was to symbolize the administration's act of effectively dismantling the Cornell Migrant Program. While the CMP technically still exists in CALS, it has lost 80% of its funding as well as the trust of advocacy groups who work with NY State farmworkers.
Our decision to hold a mock funeral should not be confused with a symbol for eternal death; rather, we are struggling for the glorious reincarnation of a bigger and better program to improve the lives of farmworkers. After 30 years of being a national leader for farmworkers rights, the Cornell administration has caved in to pressures from agricultural corporations. It has returned to the side of injustice.
The behavior of the administration should be of grave concern to the entire Cornell community. Unless students, faculty, and other members of the Cornell community place enough pressure on the administration, the Cornell Migrant Program will not be able to carry out its noble goal of justice and dignity for farmworkers.