Migrant Workers in the North Country: A Shifting Demographic Behind Closed Doors


This past summer I was conversing about global socioeconomic inequalities with a fellow college student in my hometown. He mentioned how such inequality exists practically in our own backyards and drew my attention to a Vice News video on YouTube entitled The Worst Job in NY: Immigrant America. This video discusses the high demand for “cheap labor” (code for migrant workers) in the New York dairy industry, which is NY State’s leading agricultural sector, especially with the recent Greek yogurt boom. However, unlike other agricultural sectors, which hire migrant workers for seasonal and temporary work through the H-2A visa program, dairy farming requires year round employment, and there is no equivalent visa program for migrants who work all year. Thus, the majority of the migrants who work on NY dairy farms are undocumented workers who face greater challenges than those encountered by temporary/ seasonal migrant workers. In this post I will provide some background information and lay the groundwork for more detailed research to come.

Through conversations with a local community member this past summer, I became aware of the presence of migrant workers from Latin America currently employed on dairy farms throughout St Lawrence County (in northern New York). Although I had recently become aware of the demand for migrant workers on dairy farms throughout NY state, within my last three years studying at St. Lawrence University I never would have guessed that there were Latin American migrant workers living on farms practically down the road from campus. I had always thought of the demography of the North County as consisting of predominantly white, native-born US citizens, with the majority of the diversity emanating from the various local universities. As a result of this revelation I have become increasingly interested in investigating the presence of Latino migrant workers in the North Country.

Dairy is the leading sector in NY State; however, it is an especially crucial component of the North Country’s economy and culture. Every summer local Canton residents fill the streets for the annual Dairy Princess Parade, which I had the opportunity to participate in this summer. Yet despite these festivities and the economic vitality of the North Country dairy industry, very few residents are aware of the highly demanding and often life-threatening human labor on the production end of this industry.

Within the last two months I have become in contact with some of the migrant workers on a dairy farm as well as several local community members who have been in contact with local farms regarding the migrant situation and the plight they face here in the North Country. These community members include a North Country Public Radio (NCPR) journalist, the director of a non-profit health clinic in Canton, a former employee of the local NGO Worker Justice Center of Central NY (WJCNY), and a former Spanish/English language interpreter who has facilitated communication between farmers and their workers. Each of these conversations emphasized the invisibility of these migrant communities in this region. In comparison to the migrant communities further south in the US that are far more visible and slightly more integrated into the dominant society, the migrant populations in the North Country remain hidden.

In upcoming posts I will address the tricky issue of estimating how many undocumented workers are working in the North Country dairy industry. I will also explore some of the factors that shape the daily lives of these workers and their access to essential services and advocacy resources.  

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