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The Ag Act: Congress Considers Turning Back the Clock to the Bracero Program

A bracero worker in the 1950's. Photo by APT.Somewhat lost this summer amidst all the conversation about comprehensive immigration reform is a little-known bill called the "Agricultural Guestworker Act" (or "Ag Act," HB 1773) that has already passed out of the House Judiciary Committee. This harmful bill is a thinly veiled attempt to strip farmworkers of the few rights they have on the job while propping up agribusinesses' bottom line.  

A farmworker in Eastern NC (2009). Photo by Peter Eversoll.

Here's how it works: the Ag Act would establish a new agricultural guestworker program allowing US companies to hire foreign-born workers for temporary employment in that industry. Under the current system employer certification is required, which builds in some worker protections. However, under the Ag Act, employers would only need to attest—on their on behalf, with no outside verification—that they have adequate workplace conditions, recruitment practices, wages, and insurance coverage for worker injuries. Workers would be allowed to move between employers without losing their visa. Also, 10% of a worker’s earnings would be withheld from their paycheck. The worker could only get this money from a U.S. embassy/consulate within 30 days of returning to their home country, and the worker must show they’ve followed program requirements. Furthermore, guestworkers under this bill would not be allowed to bring spouses or minor children under their visa. Finally, federal public benefits would not be available to guestworkers under the Ag Act.

We wanted workers but we got people. ~Max Frisch
Some of the Ag Act provisions are very similar to those in the infamous Bracero Program which exploited and abused 3 million temporary agricultural workers from the 1940s to the 1960s. If passed, the Ag Act would harm all workers by driving down wages, creating a second class of workers vulnerable to employer abuse, and providing reduced oversight of workers’ rights. Eligible workers would be denied access to cost-saving benefits under the Affordable Care Act as well as social welfare programs designed for those most in need. Most troubling is that guestworkers would not be allowed to become permanent legal U.S. residents, creating a class of workers exploited solely for their labor, held forever apart from being included as an equal in the country their labors serve.



Instead of adopting the more reasonable Senate bill framework that includes the "Ag-Jobs" compromise (an agreement between agribusiness and farmworkers that would allow farmworkers to get on an accelerated path to citizenship), the Ag Act will harm one of the most vulnerable working populations in the U.S. Apparently, we want the cheap labor that farmworkers provide without acknowledging the whole person - family unity, protections on the job, a safety net for hard times. Farmworkers do backbreaking work, often in deplorable conditions, and they deserve to be treated with dignity. Congress shouldn't turn the clock back on them now.

Reflections of a farmer's daughter

by Caitlin Bearden
They say growing up on a farm is one of the best ways to spend your childhood. My summer days were spent running through corn fields, riding tractors, and setting up a lemonade stand in the middle of nowhere. (Consequently my dad was my number one customer.)
My life was a journey through muddy creeks with ripped jeans and my little brother as co-pilot. I loved every minute. When I was that age I never really understood just how much hard work went into farming. I saw our land as my playground. Not until later in life did I realize that for my dad, it’s been a lifetime of hard work, with sweat-filled soil and very little pay.  No matter how hard it has been or how hard it will be, he still plows those fields I grew up running through.
I’ve learned a lot as a farmer’s daughter, such as a deeply-rooted respect for people who work with their hands and provide for others. But until recently, I knew very little about the thousands of migrant farmworkers who travel far, often leaving their families behind. Or, about farmworkers who suffer from respiratory problems due to pesticide exposure, or the ten-year-olds who work 15 hours a day picking blueberries.  
Even growing up with a farming background, I found myself simplifying just how much work goes into agriculture, as I think many of us do. We visit our local grocery store, place food in our basket, pay the cashier, and that is the extent of our relationship with farmworkers. We never think twice about the hands that placed our strawberries in their nicely packaged containers or the person who fed the cows that produced our milk by the gallons. It seems so easy to forget about the work it took to get it all there. 
Organizations like the Farmworker Advocacy Network work hard to bring attention to the real living and working conditions of farmworkers and how we can make a difference. There is pride, beauty and fun in farming, but more often than not, there are harsh realities. Not all farms are like my dad’s. For a lot of kids, the farm is not their playground. 

Farmworkers Come to Capitol Hill Seeking Safeguards

by Anna Jensen

“The laws of our country afford far less workplace protection to farmworkers than most workers receive in other industrial sectors.  Despite the clear hazards of their work, farmworkers are not even guaranteed basic on-the-job protections to reduce exposure to the highly toxic pesticides that threaten their well-being and that of their families and children. The threat facing millions of farmworkers that work in our nation’s fields, farms and nurseries is not only toxic but fundamentally unjust and the EPA has a legal duty to correct this.” –Tripp Van Noppen, president of Earthjustice

Washington, D.C. – On July 15 and July 16 on Capitol Hill, a dozen farmworkers from across the nation met with their members of Congress to call for the implementation of stronger protections for farmworkers from hazardous pesticides. An estimated 5.1 billion pounds of pesticides are applied to crops annually in the United States, and farmworkers face the greatest threat from these chemicals of any sector of society, with thousands of farmworkers each year experiencing pesticide poisoning.

“How can people eat knowing that so much pain and suffering went into this fruit or this bottle of wine?” asked Alina Diaz, vice president of Alianza Nacional de Campesinas. “That is not fair. Lawmakers need to really make a strong effort to make better legislation so these workers are protected.”

The farmworkers and allies visiting D.C. this week are calling on Congress to protect the health of farmworkers and their families by strengthening the Worker Protection Standard regulations. These rules were established by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to set agricultural worker safety standards for pesticide use, but have not been updated or revised for more than 20 years, despite overwhelming evidence of their inadequacy.

The nation’s 1-2 million farmworkers form the backbone of the U.S. agricultural economy and many are regularly exposed to pesticides.  The federal government estimates that there are 10-20,000 acute pesticide poisonings among workers in the agricultural industry annually, a figure that likely understates the actual number of acute poisonings since many affected farmworkers may not seek care from a physician.

Farmworker families are also exposed to pesticides in the form of residues on workers’ tools, clothes, shoes, and skin. The close proximity of agricultural fields to residential areas also results in aerial drift of pesticides into farmworkers’ homes, schools, and playgrounds. Research shows that children are especially vulnerable to harms from these exposures, even at very low levels.

Short-term effects of pesticide exposures can include stinging eyes, rashes, blisters, nausea, headaches, respiratory problems and even death. Cumulative long-term exposures can increase the risk for farmworkers and their children of serious chronic health problems such as cancer, birth defects, neurological impairments and Parkinson’s disease.

Most workers in the U.S. look to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) for standards to protect them from exposure to hazardous chemicals. Protection for farmworkers from pesticides is left to the EPA’s authority under the Worker Protection Standard of the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act (“FIFRA”), a standard that is far more lenient than OSHA rules and is fundamentally inadequate.

The farmworkers and advocates are calling for these changes to the Worker Protection Standard:

•           Provide more frequent and more comprehensible pesticide safety training for farmworkers

•           Include information about farmworker families’ exposures to pesticides in the required training materials

•           Ensure that workers receive information about specific pesticides used in their work

•           Require safety precautions and protective equipment limiting farmworkers’ contact with pesticides

•           Require medical monitoring of workers who handle neurotoxic pesticides

Want to help put pressure on the EPA to update the rules? Sign a petition urging the EPA to better protect workers. 


SAF interns and fellows are blogging as they go

By Michael Durbin

This year, interns on assignment with Student Action with Farmworkers have a new documentary tool at their disposal: the blog.

Hosted on Tumblr and named for SAF’s flagship summer intern program, Into the Fields allows the 25 students to capture their experiences providing health, legal, education, and organizing outreach with farmworkers in the southeast over the course of the 10-week program. Posts are also provided by the 5 students participating in the Sowing Seeds for Change fellowship program, which runs for six months.

Here are a few samples:

…his wife brought the little girl in from the bus. Jolly immediately lit up at the sight of her father sitting there in the kitchen, stretched out her arms and yelled “Papi!" Having a close relationship with my own father, this especially touched me. Some day Jolly will recognize all the sacrifices Juan made to give her a wonderful life in the United States and I can only imagine how grateful she will be.

- Jasmine Romero and Jocelyn Moratzka, 2013 SAF Interns

Certainly one of the most fun parts of the summer thus far has been participating in the SAF theater group. I was nervous when I first found out I’d be acting… The play, written by SAF’s very own Raúl Gámez, is called “Una chela al año no hace daño.” … I play an outreach worker from a health clinic who visits a camp to talk about alcoholism and alternative lifestyle practices that are better for one’s well-being, like yoga, dancing, drawing, writing, playing music, playing soccer, etc.

- Christine Burke, 2013 SAF Intern

Outreach consists of health evaluations, which includes taking height, weight, blood pressure, and asking to see if the individual has any unmet health needs. When we go out, though, we spend a lot of time at the camp talking and getting to know the workers… Last night, after we finished the health evaluations, I played on a swing set with some children and told ghost stories: it was great. 

- Mimi Reiser, 2013 SAF Intern

Throughout the summer, students will share stories of outreach, of their new communities, and of their hopes for change. They may choose to post in either English or Spanish.

The Into the Fields blog is located at Durham-based Student Action with Farmworkers is a member of the Farmworker Advocacy Network.



One Heat-Related Death Is Too Many

By Michael Durbin

Earlier this month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a report confirming that heat-related deaths are on the rise. Now that summer has begun it’s a good time to recognize the workers most affected by this lethal trend: farmworkers. According to the CDC, agricultural workers die from heat stroke at a rate not double or triple or even quadruple the rate of other workers, but 20 times greater than the general US workforce.

The reasons go beyond the obvious fact that farmworkers are in an open field, under the sun, most of the day. In addition to environmental heat, the human body also generates heat internally with every exercise of a muscle. And when farmworkers are paid by how much they harvest, rather than by the hour, they are financially pressured to maximize physical exertion in order to fill more buckets of sweet potatoes or blueberries or whatever. The harder they work the more they earn. Limited access to shade, or the need to walk long distances to get to it, only heightens this effect.

The human body has mechanisms for shedding excessive heat. But even these can give out under the extreme conditions of farmworking. We produce sweat in order for it to evaporate, thus transferring heat from skin to air. But the sweat can’t evaporate when the farmworker is clad head-to-toe in the heavy, long-sleeved clothing needed to keep toxic pesticides from entering that same skin. Even when we can sweat freely, that sweat takes precious salt from our bodies, causing water to rush into muscles, leading to painful cramps or spasms. Worse, redirection of blood to the skin reduces blood flow—and hence oxygen—to the brain. This leads to symptoms such lightheadedness, dizziness, irritability and impaired judgment.

Once our body temperature exceeds 104 degrees, our heat regulators all but give up. The sweating stops. And this is like a nuclear reactor losing its coolant. The core can no longer function properly and organs such as the heart, liver and kidneys can start to fail. So too the brain and the central nervous system. Left in this state, it’s only a matter of time before the convulsions and seizures set in, then coma and brain damage, and ultimately death.

Nobody knows how many farmworkers have suffered this fate. The CDC reports that more than 7,200 people died from excess heat from 1999 to 2009, but those numbers didn’t account for migrant workers. They, along with other non-residents, were only included in these tallies starting only last year. And the ill effects of heat don’t end with the work day. A recent study in the American Journal of Public Health shows that farmworkers continue to experience excessive heat even after leaving the fields.

Even one heat-related death is too many because we know how to prevent them. The CDC, in collaboration with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, last month published an employers guide for preventing heat-related illness or death. The measures are sensible and simple and include these:


  • Establishing work/rest schedules appropriate for current conditions.
  • Ensuring access to shade or cool areas.
  • Monitoring workers during hot conditions.
  • Providing prompt medical attention when workers show signs of heat-related illness.
  • Drinking water or other liquids frequently enough to never become thirsty, about 1 cup every 15– 20 minutes.
  • Eating during lunch and other rest breaks to replace lost electrolytes.
  • Wearing light-colored, loose-fitting, breathable clothing such as cotton, and a wide-brimmed hat when possible.
  • Recognizing that protective clothing or personal protective equipment may increase the risk of heat stress


The extraordinary risk of heat-related death is but one of many reasons agricultural work is among the most deadly occupations in America. And with extreme heat events on the rise, the need to address this risk is more urgent than ever.


Get used to killer heat waves, CDC warns

CDC urges everyone: Get ready to stay cool before temperatures soar

Preventing Heat-related Illness or Death of Outdoor Workers

Heat-Related Deaths Among Crop Workers --- United States, 1992--2006

Farmworkers continue to experience excessive heat even after leaving the fields, shows research


Indigenous Farmworkers and the Unique Barriers They Face

This past week I started class at the Yucatec Maya Summer Institute, a 6 week-long intensive language program to learn Yucatec Maya. When I tell people that I am spending my summer learning Mayan I usually get two questions: first, “Is that still spoken?” and “Why?”. First, yes, it is a living language spoken by one million people living in the Yucatán Peninsula and northern Belize. Secondly, I, too, have wondered why, as I have struggled with a language that is like nothing else that I have ever heard or spoken. Seriously, though, I want to learn Yucatec Mayan because of the experiences I had this past year working at the Farmworker Advocacy Network. All of the other students in the summer program are graduate students in linguistics, anthropology or archaeology. As a dual degree student at Duke Divinity School and the UNC School of Social Work, I feel like the odd person out. Most people, however, do not consider that within marginalized populations such as farmworkers, there are subgroups including people from indigenous backgrounds who are further marginalized linguistically and culturally.

While farmworkers are generally an invisible population whose work is often forgotten and undercompensated, indigenous farmworkers are a group that is even more marginalized. Farmworkers from indigenous communities are more likely to be exploited due to language barriers and the difficulties of finding interpreters. Language barriers often prevent farmworkers who do not speak English from knowing their rights, becoming educated about safety and pesticide precautions, and from locating service providers. Consider the fact that warning labels are always written in English and less frequently in Spanish. Indigenous farmworkers who do suffer abuses (especially sexual abuse against women) are not able to seek out services if they do not have family or friends to act as interpreters, or they are forced to remain silent. Besides language barriers, there are also cultural barriers such as indigenous spirituality that does not conform to modern medicine and a lack of recognition of discrimination against indigenous peoples within the Mexican community.

To bring home the prevalence of indigenous farmworkers, consider the community of Morganton located west of Raleigh.  When several hundred Guatemalan-born workers arrived in Morganton over 20 years ago, they began working in poultry plants. Concerns about safety and fair pay led the workers to strike and eventually organize a campaign against Case Farms. While the labor disputes have been settled, a small diaspora of Mayans are still trying to retain their sense of community amidst a changing global marketplace. This community demonstrates why it is necessary for advocates and service providers to be respectful of indigenous beliefs and be able to communicate openly with indigenous communities, who are frequently living in our backyard.

Mexico is a diverse and dynamic country, not only linguistically, but also geographically, culturally and ethnically. The Mexican government recognizes 68 distinct indigenous languages (from seven different families, and another four isolated languages) as national languages in addition to Spanish. While I realize that learning just one indigenous language is merely a drop in the bucket in terms of communication, it could one day serve me in allowing me to listen to someone and provide assistance. Likewise, every day I am reminded of how difficult it can be to communicate without the ability to speak the same language and to deal with the frustrations involved in learning a new language. As I leave for the Yucatan in a week, I am excited to learn more about the immigration situation in the Yucatan and about communities of Mayans living and working in the United States.

Jennie Wilburn is a graduate student working towards a dual masters degree in Divinity and Social Work at Duke and UNC-Chapel Hill. She interned last year at the Farmworker Advocacy Network.


Our moral imperative: Protecting all children in NC

By Melinda Wiggins | Originally published by the Raleigh News & Observer

Last month, N.C. Senate Rules Chairman Tom Apodaca refused to allow so much as a hearing of Senate Bill 707, all but killing it. What did the Henderson Republican find so objectionable?

The bill would ban the employment of children under age 14 in one of the deadliest occupations in America. But isn’t that already illegal? Didn’t child labor laws from the 1930s put an end to the industrial exploitation of kids? Not in agriculture. Not in North Carolina. Here, impoverished kids as young as 10 can be hired to work for strangers in sun-baked fields laden with toxic pesticides, doing hard labor few adults would choose to do.

We are not talking here about family farms. Senate Bill 707 – like every other proposal to bring child labor standards out of the 19th century – explicitly allows children to work on farms owned or operated by relatives. Unfortunately, this truth is routinely ignored or misrepresented, allowing legislators to brush off these reforms as threats to an American institution and parental rights.

There is no moral justification for child labor in any industry, but the economic justification is a wickedly powerful one. The denial of child labor, wage, housing and other legal rights to farmworkers – rights enjoyed by workers in every other industry in America – allows agricultural corporations to keep their labor costs at rock bottom. Growers have no control over the cost of seeds, pesticides or heavy equipment. But with the help of friendly legislators, they can hold down labor costs by taking advantage of the men, women and children who work their fields.

We understand the political realities that lawmakers face. Agribusiness carries a big stick in states like North Carolina. Fortunately, there is something the legislature can do this session to protect farmworker children from being further exploited from trafficking and sexual violence. As reported by Human Rights Watch last year, farmworking girls are subject to unwanted touching, stalking and rape. In a March 2012 Indy Week report corroborated by the nonprofit farmworker advocacy group NC Field, a 16-year-old girl tells of two young girls at one camp being offered as prostitutes to their supervisor.

Senate Bill 683, the so-called Safe Harbor Act, aims to protect victims of human trafficking and the prostitution of minors. The inclusion of simple, sensible provisions will extend this protection to children in our state who need it most.

One provision guarantees that farmworkers may receive visits during nonworking hours from church, charitable and nonprofit organizations for health care, education and other services. Another requires that the Polaris Sex Trafficking hotline be posted in migrant camps. Others require locks for doors and windows of farmworker sleeping areas and locked storage for farmworker valuables such as passports so they cannot be held to exert control.

Too many school kids are working in fields when they should be doing homework. And too many 10-, 11-, 12- and 13-year-old girls are at risk of sexual violence while helping to support their families. Our legislature is empowered to change these realities right now with bills like 707 and 683.

Melinda Wiggins is executive director of Student Action with Farmworkers, a nonprofit based in Durham.


Help Farmworkers Grow

A letter to the editor by Nadeen Bir of Student Actions with Farmworkers published in the Raleigh News & Observer on May 31, 2013.

Thank you for publishing “Farmers’ hopes lie with immigration bill” on May 22. Farming is the backbone of our economy. The 150,000 farm workers feed our families through their hard work but are often among the worst paid and least protected workers in our state.

At the Farmworker Advocacy Network, we see that immigration status leaves some workers afraid. We support broad legalization for unauthorized immigrants that includes a path to citizenship. Let’s recognize the vital contribution of farm workers by promptly providing them with lawful status that allows family reunification. Legalizing these workers would empower them to improve their wages and working conditions, allow them to seek out new jobs and stabilize the agricultural workforce.

We oppose any expansion of the current guest worker programs. If programs continue, they should protect the jobs of U.S. workers by requiring a vigorous test of the labor market, meaningful recruitment of U.S. workers and competitive wages and be portable to allow workers to bargain for better wages and working conditions and the ability to change employers.

Agricultural guest workers should be able to bring family with a straightforward and accessible path to citizenship. A fair process is possible.

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