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Tuesday
Jan202015

Modern Day Slavery Remains in Our Fields

By Caitlin Ryland, Staff Attorney
Legal Aid of North Carolina Farmworker Unit

“As we fight to eliminate trafficking, we draw strength from the courage and resolve of generations past -- and in the triumphs of the great abolitionists that came before us, we see the promise of our Nation: that even in the face of impossible odds, those who love their country can change it.” - President Barack Obama (December 31, 2014)

President Obama recently proclaimed January 2015 to be National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month. In his proclamation, President Obama issued a call to arms to Americans to recommit to the abolishment of this heinous crime. In recent years, North Carolina has made great strides in the battle against trafficking.  However, the migrant farmworkers that travel to North Carolina each year to toil in our fields remain largely forgotten in these efforts and are among those most acutely at risk.

Human traffickers target society’s most vulnerable, often invisible, populations. They prey on those that have limited connections with the community, that are unaware of, fear, or mistrust available services and agencies, that have an urgent need to leave an exploitative situation, or that otherwise have limited opportunities available to them. In some instances, traffickers use physical means of controlling a victim through restraints, beatings, or by confinement.  However, sometimes physical force is not needed.  Modern day traffickers also use means of psychological coercion to control their victim including isolation, threats of shame or violence towards them or loved ones, or the manipulation of debt, linguistic or cultural barriers, addiction, or a mental or physical impairment.

Despite the headway that North Carolina has made towards the eradication of trafficking, circumstances remain that make migrant farmworkers particularly vulnerable to the most severe forms of exploitation. Agricultural employers still control many aspects of migrant workers’ lives including their access to transportation, food, medical care, banking, and communication with the outside world, and, thus, their day-to-day ability to meet their own basic human needs. Farm labor camps in our state are located in geographically isolated areas commonly set back from the public road and prone to sporadic or nonexistent cellular phone coverage. Traffickers have exploited these conditions to limit victims' freedom by, for example, confiscating victims' identification documents, keeping victims' intentionally unaware of their whereabouts as they migrate, and controlling victims' communications with or isolating them from the public by impeding visits from medical and legal services, religious workers, and educators. You can see a short video documenting employers obstructing camp visits here.

Most migrant workers in North Carolina are immigrants to the U.S. who travel here from other southern states, and may continue to travel north as various crops mature for harvest. Also, guestworkers with temporary agricultural "H2A" visas travel to our state primarily from Mexico and Central America, but guestworkers have travelled from as far as Thailand, South Africa and Indonesia to harvest our crops. Usually, the foreign workers do not speak English and have low levels of literacy in their own languages.  They are often unfamiliar with local medical clinics, churches, emergency services such as 911, resources for trafficked or abused persons, and other services. Many who work under the supervision of a crewleader do not know the name of the grower that they are working for or the address of the labor camp where they reside. Currently, there is no requirement for camps to have a working telephone in workers' barracks nor is there a requirement that the owner or operator of the camp post emergency information, such as 911, information about local health clinics, or information regarding human trafficking or the National Human Trafficking Hotline

Under North Carolina common law, migrant farmworkers who reside in employer owned or controlled housing have the right to receive visitors of their choosing during non-work hours for lawful proposes. This right is spelled out statutorily in other states.  In practice, migrants' right to receive visitors is increasingly violated by employers trying to control workers. Many labor camp owners post menacing "no trespassing" or "no visitors" signs to deter visitors or service providers from visiting workers living in camps. Growers and crewleaders regularly threaten service providers with arrest for criminal trespass if they try to visit workers in the camp, and then use that threat as leverage to demand to know the worker’s name and subject matter of a visit. Where crewleaders are engaged in trafficking of farmworkers at a camp, not only is the grower violating the workers' right to receive visitors and houses those workers at a facility owned or controlled by a grower, the grower could be furthering a trafficking scheme by controlling workers' communications with family or support services and/or isolating them from any contact with visiting clergy, medical and legal professionals, and patrolling area law enforcement.  

If a victim of trafficking is able to escape his/her situation, there is help. Along with a network of member organizations and agencies throughout the state called the North Carolina Coalition Against Human Trafficking ("NCCAHT"), Legal Aid of NC assists victims of trafficking in our state, including farmworker victims of trafficking.  Please make these resources known and available to those that may need this help, particularly to those that are new to North Carolina.

Thursday
Dec182014

Support Farmworkers this December: A Green Guide to Giving for the Holidays

The winter holidays are the biggest shopping period of the year in the United States. In 2013, Americans spent over $600 billion on gifts, food, decorations, and other holiday purchases. But do you know how your purchasing choices impact the workers that harvest your food and greenery? Check out these ideas to learn more about how to support fair labor practices this holiday season. 

Give the gift of financial support to a farmworker family in need. Consider donating to the Farmworker Emergency Fund through our partner organization NC FIELD as a way to directly support farmworkers in crisis. NC FIELD works with farmworker youth and families around Kinston, N.C., to promote education, leadership, and dignity. Their programs include the Poder Juvenil Campesino (Rural Youth Power) youth program, public awareness campaigns, housing and educational programs, a farmworker food bank, and the emergency fund.

The NC FIELD Farmworker Emergency Fund was established in Fall 2013 to assist farmworkers in crisis. Whether farmworkers need a motel room because their labor camp is unsafe or basic necessities for their family when they haven’t been paid, this fund is designed to help farmworkers manage immediate emergencies. This fund does not supplant available entities such as the free clinic or food bank; rather, it provides basic stability in order for farmworkers to have the time and funds to take advantage of the existing resource network.

Farmworkers or social workers and providers working on their behalf may request an application from the financial officer, Pedro Sanchez, if they are working or living within a 40-mile area around Kinston. The application must be read and applied for by at least half of the voting members of the NC FIELD board. 

In the past year, the NC FIELD Farmworker Emergency Fund has been used to help pay for transportation of a young disabled farmworker living in a work camp trying to return to his family in Florida, for utility bills of several farmworker families during last year's particularly cold weather, and for hospital costs incurred by a farmworker youth with health problems most likely associated with dehydration and pesticide exposure in the fields. Donate to the Farmworker Emergency Fund here

Make informed choices about your holiday decorations. If you celebrate Christmas, do you know where your tree comes from? In North Carolina, 5 to 6 million Christmas trees are harvested each year, bringing about $100 million to the state’s economy. Growing and harvesting Christmas trees requires a lot of work. The years-long process includes planting and shaping trees, cutting them down, packaging them and loading them into trucks for delivery. By the time they are ready for harvest, trees often weigh over 100 pounds. Migrant workers, many of whom come through the temporary H-2A visa program, do much of this grueling work. Check out a WUNC radio story here to learn more about the process. Various pesticides are often applied to Christmas trees throughout their growing cycle, placing workers at risk of exposure to dangerous chemicals. How can you support farmworker health and well-being while shopping for a tree and greenery? 

●      Consider purchasing a tree or wreath that was grown sustainably. Buying an organic or low-spray tree or wreath is one way to support tree farms that do not expose farmworkers to dangerous pesticides. Toxic Free NC publishes a guide to North Carolina Christmas tree farms that use organic practices (last updated 2013).

●      Learn more about where your tree came from. Take the time to do some research on the living and working conditions of workers at Christmas tree farms that sell trees in your area.

●      Choose an alternative Christmas tree. There are many creative ways to make a festive and sustainable “tree” from things already in the home! For some ideas, start here and here.

●      Recycle your tree. After the holiday, trees can be reused for mulch and many other purposes. Make sure to remove all decorations from your tree before recycling it. This article offers information about tree recycling services in the Triangle area (from 2013; call for 2014 information).

Buy fair trade gifts. Purchasing a fair trade product ensures that the workers, farmers, or artisans who created the item are being paid a just price for their work. Fair trade standards require fair pricing, fair working conditions, and sustainable farming practices that are free of dangerous chemicals. Fair Trade USA publishes a fair trade holiday gift guide.

Prioritize worker rights and dignity in your holiday grocery shopping. Support farmworkers by buying from companies that have engaged in collective bargaining agreements with workers. Or, opt to purchase locally grown and/or pesticide-free produce that honors fair labor practices. SAF offers a buyers’ guide to supporting farmworkers as a consumer.

 Learn about and support current farmworker-led campaigns and boycotts.

●      Support the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) in their organizing campaign calling on R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company to sign an agreement with North Carolina farmworkers guaranteeing freedom of association and collective bargaining for fair wages and working conditions.

●      The Coalition of Immokalee Workers is calling on Publix, Wendy’s, and Kroger to join their Fair Food Program to end the exploitation of Florida tomato workers. Learn more and take action here, and sign their holiday card asking these companies to treat their workers with dignity.

●      Learn about the United Farm Workers’ current campaigns, including signing their holiday pledge to support dairy workers calling for better treatment at the Darigold cooperative.

This holiday season, pledge to be an educated consumer and show support for the families whose hard work puts food on our tables and holiday greenery in our homes. Together, we can use our purchasing power to call for dignity and justice for farmworkers in our country and our communities.

Tuesday
Dec162014

Obama’s Executive Action and Farmworkers

By Caroline Phillips, MSW intern at NC Farmworker Health Program

On November 20, President Obama announced a series of executive actions on immigration that take steps toward reforming our broken immigration system. It’s estimated that his plan could provide relief from deportation to about 5 million immigrants.

The most significant action creates a pathway for some parents of U.S. citizen and legal permanent resident children to apply for deportation relief and employment verification. To apply, parents must have been in the U.S. since January 1, 2010 and must have children born before November 20, 2014, who are U.S. citizens or permanent residents. Applicants will have to pay a fee and undergo a criminal background check. If approved, they’ll receive deportation relief and a work permit for three years.

The plan also expands the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program to cover more people. DACA will now be available to all undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. before turning 16, regardless of their current age. This is a change from the previous policy that required DACA applicants to be under age 31. The action also extends the DACA period of deportation relief and work authorization to three years instead of two.

Other actions include modifying immigration enforcement priorities, creating a working group to improve the protection of undocumented workers under employment laws, and expanding options for U and T visas for victims of crime and human trafficking. More information can be found on the Department of Homeland Security website.

So what does this all mean for farmworkers?

Farmworker Justice estimates that about 450,000 farmworkers might be eligible for deferred action under Obama’s plan, although they stress that this is a rough calculation and more data is needed. Of the approximately 2.4 million farmworkers in the United States, 50 to 70 percent are undocumented and over 80% have lived in the U.S. for at least five years. FJ estimates that less than half - but a significant number - of these workers have children who are U.S. citizens or permanent residents.

While this action will empower hundreds of thousands of farmworkers to live without fear of deportation and exploitation, it also omits many hardworking individuals and families. Bruce Goldstein, president of Farmworker Justice, said in a press release, “Even as we celebrate with those who will be eligible for relief, we are disappointed at the limits of the program. The eligibility criteria will deny administrative relief to many deserving farmworkers and their family members, including many long-time farmworkers who do not have U.S. citizen children.”

As the executive actions are implemented in the coming year, we’ll learn more about their impact on farmworker communities. It’s important to note that no one can apply for parental deferred action yet. Applications should be available within 180 days.

For more information about Obama’s immigration actions’ impact on farmworkers, visit:

●      Farmworker Justice: farmworkerjustice.org

●      United Farm Workers has created an information site in Spanish, Si Se Puede: sisepuede.org/

Wednesday
Nov192014

Fight for $15 and the Farmworker Movement

By Catherine Crowe, SAF Intern

On October 23, 2014, Raise up for $15 hosted an allies meeting and invited individual and organizational supporters of the movement in solidarity with the fast food workers’ campaign to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour. As farmworker advocates, we realize that exploitation in the food supply chain continues all the way from the farmworkers who grow the produce to the fast food workers who sell the food. The farmworker and fast-food worker struggles are one and the same.

The Fight for $15 began two years ago as a national movement of fast food workers demanding a living wage. Currently the national minimum wage is $7.25 an hour. According to the Fight for $15 website, 52% of fast food workers rely on public assistance because they cannot survive on their current wages. Essentially, companies like McDonald’s and Burger King externalize their costs by placing the burden on taxpayers, who collectively pay $7 billion each year to support fast-food workers through public benefits.

The local chapter of Fight for 15, called Raise Up for 15, works out of Durham. They organized their first fast-food worker strike in August 2013 and since then have held three more strikes with sizeable worker support and turnout despite organizing in a Right-to-Work state. 

At the allies meeting, a few workers shared their stories about why they participated in the strike and why they need a union and $15/ hour. Nakiel, a Burger King worker, said that even though he had been working for a long time, he was still making a little over minimum wage. He said that $15 an hour was necessary to provide for his kids. He also said he needed $15 to live with a sense of dignity and to fund small things like haircuts that allow him to feel good about himself. Ebony, another Burger King worker, talked about how the movement inspired and empowered her. Participating in the strikes gave her a sense of hope when she saw everyone united, demanding respect for workers. “Hope is my gas,” she said. 

Workers and organizers then talked about the successes and challenges of the campaign. Workers in North Carolina have seen miniscule raises since the campaign began, but the Fight for $15 campaign has had significant victories in other states. Also, in a less direct way, the campaign has raised national consciousness on workers’ rights and changed the discourse of what is a fair and living wage. When Obama first took office, he proposed a new minimum wage of $9.50, but today talks on raising the wage focus on a minimum of more than $10 an hour. In the recent 2014 election, four states passed measures to raise the minimum wage, the highest being Alaska with an increase to $9.75 by 2016. The bar has been raised and continues to rise.

After the workers spoke about their campaign, they opened the floor and asked for the allies to share why they supported the Fight for 15. Justin Flores from the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) said that FLOC supported the movement because of the intersectionality of farmworker and fast-food worker issues. Flores explained that low wages are also a problem for farmworkers, who are exempt from the $7.25 minimum wage. However, he said that farmworkers who are involved in FLOC’s campaigns are struggling to ensure that they are even paid that low minimum wage.

Students also had a large presence at the meeting. One ally commented that current students are part of the most underpaid and most in debt generation. Students will soon enter the workforce, and many will be forced to survive on low wages, compounded by hefty student loans. Student activist groups such as United Students Against Sweatshops from Duke and UNC also talked about their work with campus workers to increase wages and win union rights.

The fast food worker’s ability to live, and live with dignity, is imperative for all of us, whether we are professionals, students, workers, homemakers, organizers, or farmworkers. As Fannie Lou Hamer famously said, “Nobody’s free until everybody’s free.” Fast food workers will host rallies across the South on December 4th for $15 an hour and union rights. Everyone is encouraged to join. Raise Up!

To learn more about Raise Up for 15:

Website: http://www.raiseupfor15.org/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/RaiseUpfor15

Twitter: https://twitter.com/RaiseUpfor15

Wednesday
Nov122014

Celebrating the Lives, Deaths and Contributions of North Carolina Farmworkers on November 1st

Last week farmworker advocates joined with farmworkers from across the state to remember fallen farmworkers who have died in the fields of North Carolina. The event took place on November 1st, which is Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) in Mexico and All Saints’ Day for Christians around the world. While these two celebrations differ, they also have a lot in common. It is important to note that they fall at the end of the harvest season, when the sun begins to set later and the trees shed their leaves—the natural world dies until its rebirth in the spring. At the event this past weekend, this timing was especially crucial because it made it possible for workers to attend the event and tell their stories.

Photo courtesy of Chris JohnsonBoth Día de los Muertos and All Saints' Day remember death. Their ways of remembering, however, are different. On All Saints' Day, pastors often will read aloud the names of those who have passed away in the congregation. It is a time of remembering and praying for those who have departed. Día de los Muertos likewise remembers the dead, but it also celebrates their living memory as well. It is a time to welcome the dead back to the world of the living with a celebration; there is music, food, drink and flowers, and the families will often create an altar in memory of the deceased in their homes or go to the grave site to share a meal alongside the departed loved ones.

Our celebration, organized by the Farmworker Advocacy Network, incorporated dimensions of both Día de los Muertos and All Saints' Day. The event took place at Oakwood Cemetery in Raleigh. It was held in the Moravian God’s Acre section of the cemetery, which I found particularly meaningful, as all tombstones in Moravian cemeteries are flat and the same size so that everyone is represented as equal in death, regardless of race, gender, age at death, or status in life. An altar was created as a backdrop for the event, and Ramon Zepeda of Student Action with Farmworkers asked participants to place words on the altar that could have improved the farmworkers’ lives, words such as agua (water), descanso (rest) and respeto (respect).Photo courtesy of Chris Johnson

The event served both to give current farmworkers a voice and to remember with dignity those who had already passed. Both field and poultry workers from across the state shared their experiences of enduring poor working conditions and working hard to improve their lives. Likewise, advocates read obituaries of farmworkers who had died in order to remember the names of those who had passed or those who were nameless in death, but whose lives still mattered. Overall, it was a time for the larger family of humanity to gather around an altar to affirm life and humanity in the midst of death and injustice. As workers called on officials to help prevent future on-the-job deaths by enforcing state and federal laws, the most important part of the event was recalling that a memory celebrated becomes a living hope for eternal life.

Tuesday
Oct282014

Letter to the Editor: Protect Child Farmworkers

We need Labor Commissioner Cherie Berry to act. While national Labor Secretary Perez is tweeting about ending child labor around the world, reports from researchers and journalists are calling out North Carolina for something we have known for years: Our state is home to thousands of child farmworkers laboring in tobacco fields under hazardous conditions. It is becoming more difficult to turn a blind eye to the photos and the facts. Yet in 2012 when public health and farmworker advocates met with Commissioner Berry and urged her to do the job her agency is charged with—protecting workers--, she refused to support efforts that would bring nineteenth-century labor laws up to speed with twenty-first century realities.

Despite an increasingly glaring spotlight on these realities, especially for child farmworkers, there continues to be no reaction from our state labor department.  Earlier this year Human Rights Watch released a report 
based on disturbing interviews with children tobacco workers as young as seven years old working in North Carolina and other southern states. Nearly three-fourths reported getting sick at work with symptoms like nausea, headaches, skin conditions, and respiratory illness; over half had seen pesticides being sprayed in the fields where they worked or in neighboring fields.
 

In September, The New York Times published a 
front-page story on child labor on North Carolina tobacco farms. Children described wearing plastic garbage bags to protect themselves from nicotine poisoning while working 12-hour shifts, working in hot and dry conditions with no water to drink, and feeling dizzy, nauseous, and vomiting while working.
 

Tobacco growers are starting to take notice. An AP article published in the N&O on 10/21/14, “New efforts to ban tobacco farm child labor” cites a 
policy statement issued by the Tobacco Growers Association of North Carolina that says growers should not employ children under age 16 to work in tobacco fields, and should “be cautious” about using workers ages 16 and 17.  Current law allows children to begin working on farms at age 12, while the legal age in almost every other industry is 14. They can do “hazardous” agricultural work at age 16, while all other industries limit such work to adults 18 and older. The children who labor in our tobacco fields are far too young to legally buy cigarettes, yet our laws allow them to be poisoned by this harmful substance on the job daily.
 

Anyone concerned about these realities for tobacco and other workers can join in efforts to change them. A 
campaign organized by FLOC (Farm Labor Organizing Committee) is pressuring tobacco giant R.J. Reynolds to guarantee labor rights in their supply chain. FLOC is a member of theFarmworker Advocacy Network, an active coalition organizing to pressure state officials to ensure safer and more dignified working and living conditions for farmworkers and their families, including child workers. Our messages include raising the minimum age to perform hazardous agricultural work from 16 to 18 years old, as it is for every other type of work.  We owe these basic protections to the children in North Carolina whose hard work feeds us all.
 

All are invited to 
join farmworkers and advocates this Saturday, Nov. 1 at 11:30am at Raleigh’s Oakwood Cemetery (in the Moravian God's Acre Section) on Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, a Mexican holiday when communities gather to celebrate the lives of those who have died. Expert speakers will share experiences and lead a service to honor the lives of North Carolina farmworkers, including children, who have been injured or died at work or due to the conditions of their work environment while laboring to bring food to our tables. 

Thursday
Oct232014

Join us to celebrate Día de los Muertos!

 

Friday
Oct102014

Student Farmworker Solidarity

 Why should students care about farmworker issues?

 By: Catherine Crowe, SAF Intern

Most students will agree that farmworker oppression is appalling and that farmworkers should be treated better, but they generally see farmworker justice as an issue as distant from their own lives as, say, sweatshop labor in Bangladesh. In many ways, this distance is real. Farmworkers and students live physically in different spaces and are even subject to different laws. Farmworkers and students live such entirely different lives that one has to ask: is food the only connection that students have to farmworkers? While students should be conscious consumers, there is a connection between farmworkers and students that goes beyond a simple producer-consumer relationship.

 

During my second year of college at UNC-Chapel Hill, I joined a campus organization called Alianza that focused on farmworker justice. We worked with the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) on a campaign targeting Reynolds Tobacco, one of the biggest tobacco corporations in the world. When planning our campaign, we asked ourselves the same question- why should students care about tobacco farmworkers? In our research of Reynolds, we found a very literal connection- David Powers. Powers was a lobbyist for R.J Reynolds Tobacco from 2001-2003 and now resides as the Vice President of State Government Relations at Reynolds American. Additionally, he is the Treasurer of the corporate board of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a large and powerful corporate lobby group that influences and writes legislation. Powers is also a member of the UNC Board of Governors (BOG), which pretty much has power and jurisdiction over everything on UNC’s 17 campuses. Powers, like many other BOG members, has never been an educator nor has any real qualifications to be on the BOG. So how is it that a man like Powers is able to assume an influential position that affects how much financial aid I receive, what majors I can choose, whether or not I can live in gender-neutral housing, etc..? Powers makes not only profit (and a lot of it) from the exploitation of farmworkers, but he also uses farmworkers to amass huge amounts of power that he is able to use against student interests.  

 

While Powers is one man, his story is part of a greater societal structure that dictates who has power and who doesn’t. Students should care about farmworkers because both student and farmworker rights are being attacked and our voices are being silenced. Students and farmworkers both have a role to play in demanding and instituting economic and social justice; we cannot expect systemic change unless we are cognizant of each other’s struggles and organize collectively for our liberation.