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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.

Read more here:

Flawed study seeks to justify discrimination against U.S. workers

By Lori Johnson | Originally posted at NC Policy Watch

If there is a dominant myth in the debate over America’s treatment of the men and women who harvest our food, it is that U.S. workers won’t take these jobs. A recent study by a researcher named Michael Clemens at the Center for Global Development (CGD), a Washington, DC think tank, and released by the Rupert Murdoch backed Partnership for a New American Economy, makes just such a claim.

The study, which was picked up by media outlets around the country, concludes erroneously that unemployed U.S. workers aren't taking farmworker jobs and therefore don't require much in the way of legal protections.

Unfortunately, the study’s conclusions are demonstrably false and based on faulty information.

Set in North Carolina, the study outright ignores the existence of virtually all the U.S. workers doing farm work in North Carolina. For 2010, the study accounts for only 74 workers, less than one percent of the U.S. workers referred to farm jobs through the North Carolina Division of Employment Security (DES) alone.

The study is limited to farms that bring in foreign labor through the federal H-2A visa program and then only to jobs with the North Carolina Growers' Association (NCGA), a labor broker that charges farms to bring in foreign H-2A labor. Yet NCGA's U.S. worker recruitment outcomes are hardly representative. With four-fifths of the H-2A jobs in North Carolina last year, it received only one-fifth of job service U.S. worker H-2A referrals.

The study falsely presumes that the lack of U.S. workers on H-2A farms is due to worker choice. It even claims that there is "extensive coordination" between NCGA and the state Job Service agency, which is supposed to help connect unemployed workers to jobs.

The reality is some Job Service officials are loathe to refer U.S. farmworkers to H-2A positions, which require much more paperwork. Recently, when an American brought three H-2A job orders to a local Job Service agent, the agent threw the orders in the trash.  When another U.S. citizen sought tobacco work, the Job Services official told her "I don't do H-2A, it's too complicated." Other examples of this kind of treatment abound.

Indeed, the CGD study is based on a time period when Job Service offices were operating under a 2007 U.S. Department of Labor directive to avoid referring US workers to H-2A jobs. The study assumes that a lack of increased referrals during the recession means U.S. workers are not responsive to market forces, ignoring the counteracting force of this federal directive in place during the same time period.

Most U.S. workers don't even know these jobs exist. Several Job Service offices don't post NCGA jobs in the county of actual employment. Instead, the "master job orders,” with information on jobs throughout the state, are posted in the county where NCGA’s headquarters is located. This means that a man who conducts a Job Service database search for work in his home county doesn't even see the available NCGA positions.

There are reasons to doubt the study's claim that few Americans finished the season. The federal Office of the Inspector General (OIG) audited the NCGA and found the NCGA had used a false end date that included late season sweet potato work not available to most workers. The OIG determined it was impossible for most workers, foreign or domestic, to "finish the season."

The study presumes higher turnover is the worker's fault. With many tactics in the playbook of how to get rid of the U.S. workers, perhaps turnover was the goal. Legal Aid of North Carolina has represented U.S. workers at different employers who claimed that the H-2A workforce was given preferential treatment.

Why not welcome U.S. workers? Well, for starters, a foreign labor broker's entire business model depends on Americans not being available. Each U.S. worker hired means reduced profit.

In addition, foreign H-2A workers are exempt from certain core federal worker protection laws and cannot lawfully work anywhere but the farm to which they are assigned.

Perhaps most importantly, though, is the fact that foreign workers are less likely to complain if not paid or treated properly because they fear losing their visa. Add to this the fact that the H-2A program also allows growers to custom pick a workforce that is male and young and unburdened by local family responsibilities and it’s no wonder U.S. workers face such discrimination.

As noted, the study recommends further reducing protections for U.S. workers.

Ignoring all the counteracting factors, the study concludes that U.S. workers won't respond to increased wages or improved working conditions. And of course this “logic” flies in the face of basic market rules that tie supply to better wages and working conditions.    

The truth is there are many workers – both U.S. citizens and authorized aliens – that need and want agricultural jobs. And should immigration reform proposals currently before Congress pass, there will be many more legal workers.

The existence of foreign labor and the need to protect U.S. workers are not mutually exclusive. Let’s hope the public isn't fooled by this ill-conceived and badly-flawed effort to cloak discrimination against American workers.  


Child labor op-eds: The power of a red herring

By: Michael Durbin

Two excellent op-eds illustrate how misinformation is used to block sensible attempts at giving farmworking children the same protections as other children. 

In the New York Times, Marjorie Elizabeth Woods writes in “Pitting Child Safety Against the Family Farm” about the Department of Labor’s ill-fated attempt to prevent children under age 16 from working in dangerous farm jobs. Swift, massive, and often wildly misinformed reaction from conservatives led the DOL not only to withdraw the proposal, but to promise “this regulation will not be pursued for the duration of the Obama administration.” Woods goes on to highlight how the same tactics were used in the decades leading up to the 1938 passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act.

On CNN Opinion, Cristina Traina argues in “Obama, strengthen rules on child farm labor” that the president must not give up on these kids, the “least protected, underpaid work force in American labor… the go-to workers for farms looking to cut costs.” After recounting the recent death of a 15-year old crushed to death by heavy farm equipment he was operating, Traina also highlights the effectiveness of organizations like the American Farm Bureau at killing the DOL proposal.

Sadly, such attempts to distract from the real issues are now used to defeat sensible proposals on any number of issues facing our nation (think gun control). But this is no reason to give up. The FLSA did become law, after decades of opposition that must have seemed insurmountable to child labor advocates of the day, and lightning storms of misinformation shine a light on an obvious need: the dissemination of correct information.

Here are the links to these informative and insightful pieces:

New York Times 

CNN Opinion


A Bill of Rights for North Carolina workers

By Clermont Fraser and Sabine Schoenbach

See a graphic version here.

Workers are the driving force behind economic growth, so what’s good for North Carolina’s workers is also good for North Carolina’s businesses.

Recently, attorneys and advocates of the North Carolina Justice Center’s Workers’ Rights Project asked workers across the state to imagine what laws they would enact to make North Carolina better for workers and, by extension, businesses. Their ideas form the basis of a “Workers’ Bill of Rights.”

Here are the key components of what such a Workers’ Bill of Rights would include (along with some bills from the current North Carolina General Assembly that would – if enacted – help make those components a reality):

The right to be paid for the work you do – “Wage theft” occurs when workers are underpaid or not paid at all for their work, and it happens every day in North Carolina. House Bill 826 would make it easier for workers to bring complaints when employers cheat them out of wages and would hold unscrupulous employers accountable through increased penalties. This would go a long way in curbing this crime wave.

The right to a living wage – Working full-time and year-round should be enough to keep a worker out of poverty. But a full-time minimum-wage worker in North Carolina earns about $3,000 less per year than the federal poverty threshold for a family of three. While food and energy costs continue to rise, the current minimum wage of $7.25 just isn’t enough to make ends meet. House Bill 115 and Senate Bill 220 would adjust the minimum wage based on increases in the cost of living. This would be an important first step in making sure that hard work pays off and ensuring that workers earn enough to fuel job and economic growth in their local communities.

The right to equal pay – Women in North Carolina are paid $7,000 per year less than men — simply for being women. A recent study showed women in our state are more likely than men to work in managerial and professional occupations and have higher levels of education than men but still are paid less. Isn’t it time to ensure that all North Carolina employees, women and men, are paid the same wages for the same work? House Bill 603 – the “Equal Pay Act” – would do just that.

The right to a safe workplace – Federal and state law are supposed to protect workers from serious harm on the job, but the lack of enforcement and the low fines for violations lead many employers to sacrifice safety in order to save money. House Bill 906 would improve workplace safety by requiring anyone bidding on a public construction contract to be pre-qualified based on their compliance with occupational safety and health laws.

The right to care for your health and your family without losing pay or your job – For many workers, losing a day’s pay is as easy as catching a cold. Taking a child or grandchild to a doctor’s appointment, recovering from an illness, or spending time to bond with a newborn child – these are ubiquitous life events that shouldn’t put a worker’s job or a family’s economic security at risk. All workers need earned paid sick time (as would be required by House Bill 100 and Senate Bill 536) and access to job protections under the federal Family Medical Leave Act when the need to take a longer period of leave arises (House Bill 99 and Senate Bill 535).

Lawmakers have talked about the need to bring jobs to our state. We agree. North Carolina continues to have the fifth highest unemployment rate in the country. But the fact that the General Assembly has pushed forward an anti-union constitutional amendment (House Bill 6) while ignoring the bills that echo the voices of workers is a telling signal about the way North Carolina leaders intend to market the state to prospective employers. Are cheap labor and poor working conditions really what we want to be known for?

Pro-worker bills are not anti-business bills. The bills that together form the Workers Bill of Rights would help working families while helping local businesses and the economy – by putting money into the pockets of those most likely to spend in their communities, by establishing a loyal and productive workforce, and by ensuring the economic security and dignity of all working families in North Carolina.

Clermont Fraser is a Migrant Worker Attorney and Sabine Schoenbach is a Policy Analyst. Both work at the North Carolina Justice Center.

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