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A Workers Center of Central New York member gathers items from  a building at Melrose Farm in Owasco.

The Citizen file

The group of people who keep some of Cayuga County's big farms humming include many laborers who eat and sleep right where they work. It is a largely unseen workforce, but it must not be allowed to be forgotten, as illustrated by a recent case at a Melrose Road dairy farm in Owasco.

Four adults and five children recently vacated dairy farm housing that Owasco Town Supervisor Ed Wagner said he "wouldn't let my dog live in." The house is dirty, smelly and has lacked septic service. The interior walls are made mostly of particle board, and some of the ceilings are so low that an average-size person cannot stand up straight. 

The Owasco Code Enforcement office kept the pressure on in this case, and cease and desist orders were eventually issued to farmer Joe Tidd because the house is not safe for people to be living inside. And we appreciate that in this case people from area churches got involved, delivering food and clothing to the families in recent months and now helping them find new accommodations.

The Workers Center of Central New York is helping the workers file wage complaints, and among the agencies investigating the situation are the Cayuga County Health Department and the state Department of Environmental Conservation.

We don't know about the immigration status of these particular workers, but it's safe to say that many migrant workers would rather avoid too much scrutiny — and that means that they are less reluctant to report any sort of workplace or living condition health and safety issues.

And that makes them especially vulnerable to exploitation.

There are rules in place regarding sanitation, structural safety and fire hazards for farm housing units, and we would like to believe that our many area farms provide safe housing for their workers. But the state needs to be implementing specific oversight protocols to prevent any bad situations like the one on Melrose Road from going unnoticed and uncorrected.

The fact that it took about a half-dozen groups and agencies to help bring this one situation to light makes us wonder how many laborers don't get any help at all, remaining stuck with unfair and unsafe conditions on farms across New York.

The Citizen Editorial Board includes publisher Rob Forcey, managing editor Mike Dowd and executive editor Jeremy Boyer.