by Elizabeth A. Tomlin
Multicultural farm workers are being focused on more keenly than in previous years, with a highlight on communication and literacy skills required for adaptation to U.S. culture.
In a webinar led by Mary Jo Dudley, Director of the Cornell Farmworker Program, information was shared on how to promote better communication resulting in better performance and relationships with foreign workers.
Dudley said interviews were conducted with both foreign workers and farm managers identifying challenges and how to provide best practices.
“Some of the goals were to help navigate workplace relations to establish or improve regular communication channels, to develop mechanisms to improve trust between workers and their employers or managers, to develop useful performance reviews that accommodate worker and employer expectations and goals, and support improved quality of life for employers and their employees. This is the template we use when we gather information,” Dudley explained.
Conflicts arise when mutual respect between employees — and between employees and managers — is lacking.
“If there can be the establishment of clear principles of mutual respect, that’s a firm foundation for creating positive workplace relations.”
Tension occurs when workers feel devalued by managers or employees.
“Communication can be best defined as the message received, not the message sent,” Dudley remarked.
Providing positive feedback, alongside of criticism, will go a long way in the workplace.
Dudley said in many instances foreign workers are illiterate even in their own language. So, do not assume that a Spanish speaking worker is able to understand a sign or poster written in the Spanish language.
Housing and roommates can also cause conflict because of language and cultural barriers that exist.
All of these things contribute to labor instability, where workers “just disappear.”
Establishing employee guidelines and job descriptions has been found to be beneficial to both employees and employers. This will set clear expectations and goals to all involved.
Current level of employee skills should be evaluated and training should be available.
Scheduling team meetings with someone who can clearly translate what is being said is advised.
Dudley also spoke about New York farmworker housing programs that are available.
Contacts for more information on housing grants include: Dennis Eckel at Farm Credit East; Susan Lerch at PathStone, 585.546.3700; John Wiltse at PathStone, 585.340.3346; Mike Bozak, USDA Rural Development, 518.477.6400.
Melissa Buckley Supervisor and Foreign Labor Certification Specialist, NYS DOL, spoke about the H-2A process and regulations concerning foreign labor, including trends in New York, timelines and domestic worker requirements.
“What is the H-2A program? It is a Federal program which allows U.S. employers to hire foreign workers on a temporary basis when there are not sufficient U.S. workers available,” Buckley stated. “The work must be agricultural in nature and full-time, which for the definition of H-2A, is 35 hours per week or more, and it must be temporary.”
Buckley said this program is the only guaranteed way to bring “qualified workers to engage in seasonal agricultural work,” to the U.S. from approved countries.
Employers incur costs involved in transportation and other fees.
Buckley said common missteps by employers include; under reporting of hours involved, vague job descriptions, housing problems, and, not keeping employee payment up-to-date. Unannounced inspections and field checks are made for compliance.
More on the H-2A process may be obtained at
Beverly Sirvent from the Finger Lakes Community Health (FLCH) program advised on the many federally qualified health programs available to “under served and special populations,” including ag workers, across New York State.
In the Finger Lakes Region, nine health centers are located in six counties, with mobile medical services.
Sirvent said the service accepts nearly all insurance, has a “generous sliding fee scale,” provides payment plans, and also has voucher programs available for uninsured patients.
“The voucher program is designated to help migratory and seasonal farmworker patients, who are uninsured, get medical, dental and specialty care services outside of the Fingerlakes service area. And we’re a last resort for payment.”
Sirvent reports that there are 166 Migrant Programs available in the U.S. serving ag workers.
Other similar programs available in New York State include the Hudson River Health Care and the Oak Orchard Community Health Center.
For more information go to .
Christopher Norton, NYS Migrant Education, Geneseo, NY, addressed the importance of education with foreign labor and especially the children traveling with their parents in migratory situations.
“There are currently nine regions around the state that are covered by nine different organizations that provide education and support to migrant farmworker children throughout New York State,” said Norton.
Because of a variety of circumstances interruptions in schooling for the children of migrant workers leads to the lack of accrued credits, making it difficult for these children to graduate from high school and limiting them in life skills and career opportunity.
Six key areas are targeted with the Migrant Education program and flexible, educational programs are available to youth under 22 years of age.
These programs encourage parental involvement, credit accrual towards graduation/ GED, interstate coordination, self advocacy and leadership. Basic eligibility includes pre-school children and out-of-school youth.
Norton pointed out that limited English proficiency adds to this problem, as does geographical locations of farm employees.
“The goal is to assure that all migrant students can meet the challenge and academic standards and graduate with a high school diploma that prepares them to be responsible citizens and productive employees, as well.”
More information can be found at or contact Norton at or 585.658.7960.
Additional tips and tools for employers of foreign workers may be accessed at the Cornell Farmworker Program website or by contacting Mary Jo Dudley at .
The Farmworker Program is “dedicated to improving the living and working conditions of farmworkers and their families through research, education and extension.”