Progressive Voices

North Carolina’s failure to enforce farmworker protections

The workers who harvest North Carolina’s sweet potatoes and tobacco are some of the lowest-paid and least protected workers in the state. They routinely face exposure to intense heat, long hours, back-breaking labor and dangerous pesticides and equipment. In general, farm work is among the most dangerous occupations in our state.

And it doesn’t have to be this way.

Sadly, much of the danger for farmworkers is the direct byproduct of North Carolina law, which makes agricultural workers “exceptions” to most labor laws, such as overtime protections.

But, the law itself is not always the problem. Many of these harsh conditions are also the result of half-hearted, or even absent, application of what few protections do exist.

Farmworker advocates across the state have been monitoring and attempting to collaborate with the North Carolina Department of Labor for several years in an effort to bring farm labor issues to their attention. The reception over the last decade, unfortunately, has been lukewarm at best. Responses usually follow the tried and true bureaucratic pattern:

“We are doing the best we can.” “We can’t be at every farmworker housing site.” “We have limited resources,” etc, etc…

Though perhaps not terribly surprising from a Department in which the chief,  Commissioner Cherie Berry, has made cozying up to business her most visible priority (and in a “right-to-work” state that is already unfriendly to labor in numerous ways), the response remains extremely disappointing – especially in light of the demonstrably inhumane conditions that so many farmworkers must endure.

Whatever the state of the Department of Labor, however, farmworker advocates have not become disheartened in the least and will continue to press officials to take action.

And when they do, they’ll remind the Department that many of the extreme, dangerous, and degrading conditions that farmworkers must face here in the state, could be easily remedied by taking just a few simple, logical steps.

For example, although the state budget may limit the number of inspectors who are able to visit farm labor sites, there is nothing stopping those inspectors from strategizing about which camps they do visit. In fact, recent research conducted by both the Farmworker Advocacy Network and the Wake Forest University School of Medicine has confirmed that there are clear patterns about which farms are the worst violators of labor and housing laws.

If the Department of Labor, recognizing its limited resources, truly wants to do something about the squalid conditions and atrocious violations our rural workers face, it must proceed aggressively and efficiently.

Unsafe working conditions should not be considered “business as usual”; we can’t wait for another major incident to make these changes.

Here are just some of the main problems identified by researchers in which North Carolina does a poor job of protecting farmworker living and working conditions:

1.Penalties are inconsistent and usually too low to deter violations.

2.Violations are classified incorrectly, resulting in incorrect penalties.

3.Fines are routinely reduced and/or negotiated downward.

4.Official follow-up is lacking to ensure problems are abated.

5.Few migrant camps are inspected after they become occupied.

What is perhaps most striking about these issues is that all of them can be addressed without major budgetary implications: Advocates are only asking that the DOL officials comply with their own standards and not roll over every time an employer complains or seeks to have their fines reduced or excused. Fines, after all, should be deterrents to wrongful actions.

Where there’s a will, there’s a way. But does the Department of Labor have the will to fix these problems? And do we, the public, have the will to hold the DOL accountable for improving conditions for the roughly 130,000 migrant farmworkers that harvest our food?

Let’s hope so. And let’s take the preventative steps now, before even more injured workers end up in the emergency room and everyone loses.

Bart Evans is the coalition coordinator of the Farmworker Advocacy Network (FAN).