The ducks are coming home to roost

Image of Gillian Tett

In recent months Kerry Kennedy, a scion of America’s mighty Kennedy family, has been fuming about foie gras. This is not because of her concerns for animal welfare, though. What she is particularly worried about is human abuse. In particular, Kennedy alleges that the largest foie gras farm in America, Hudson Valley Foie Gras in upstate New York, is working its labourers obscenely hard. The staff have to work without any of the holidays or rest days that employees would normally expect.

“There are people who have worked 10 years, with no break,” Kennedy says. And what is most striking, Kennedy argues, is that this incessant labour is entirely legal, even today. New York state’s 100,000-odd (mostly Latino) farm labourers are not covered by the normal legal framework that provides workers’ rights, such as maximum hours or the ability to form unions.

Now, the managers of Hudson Valley Foie Gras deny that their workers are unhappy and have told local reporters that their staff want to work extremely hard. When I called the farm this week, a manager brusquely insisted that Kennedy was “misinformed”, but refused to answer any more questions about the issue. Whatever the truth, the absence of any social protections in a place such as New York state may come as a surprise for many FT readers, particularly those who are sitting in Europe today. And though people such as Kennedy – a daughter of Bobby Kennedy, and a human rights activist – are now campaigning to introduce a “farmworker fair labor practices act”, it will not be an easy fight. For the issue of farm labour cuts to the heart of much bigger ideological divides in America.

The key issue revolves around the Fair Labor Standards Act, drawn up by President Franklin Roosevelt in the 1930s. This offered workers basic protections, such as maximum hours and pay for overtime. However, when it was proposed about 80 years ago, segregationist congressmen and senators threatened to block it, because they did not want to extend worker protection to blacks as well as whites. To win their support, Roosevelt deliberately excluded domestic servants and farm workers from the bill, since they were the ones who tended to be black.

In subsequent years, some states have removed such exclusions. California, for example, extended protections to farm workers more than three decades ago, and Florida did the same more recently, after a bitter political fight about tomato-pickers. Encouraged by that, civil rights activists have been pushing for a similar change in New York for more than a decade. But the state government in Albany has hitherto refused – partly because Republicans have been powerful in the New York legislature and dislike Democrats such as Kennedy pushing for change. Another problem is the vast cultural divide between upstate New York (where the farms are) and Manhattan (where people like Kerry live).

In addition, the farmers insist that reform would be economic suicide for the state. There is now so much competition in farming, the argument goes, that farmers can only survive with access to cheap, ultra-flexible workers, such as migrant labourers. Although native-born white Americans usually do not want these $10,000-a-year jobs, the farmers insist that migrants want to work as hard as possible. “A vote in support of the so-called ‘farmworker fair labor practices act’ is a vote against New York’s hard-working farm families and the farm workers employed,” the state’s Farm Bureau thunders, noting that “downstate” liberals fail to understand “the realities of providing food for our tables”. Republicans in the Albany senate add that it is particularly ill-judged to launch this campaign now, since upstate New York has recently become much more successful in some agricultural niches, such as the yoghurt industry.

How this will end is unclear. This week, Kennedy and a group of farm workers, wearing red scarves on their faces, were marching in Albany in support of the fair labour act. Following that, the state assembly voted in favour of it. But the bill now needs to pass the New York senate and that vote could be close (though Andrew Cuomo, the state governor and Kennedy’s former husband, appears to be backing reform). In any case, with the legislature due to wind down in a month, time is running out.

One thing is evident, however: the economic gulf between $10,000-a-year migrant workers and the wealthy Manhattan elites, who live a mere hour or two away, is growing bigger by the day. So is the political divide between liberal voices and farmers who hate the idea of government meddling in free labour markets.

The story of foie gras, in other words, is apt to leave a distinctly sour taste – even before you see the delicacy’s high price tag.

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