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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.


Today is International Workers' Day

Yazmin Garcia Rico of Student Action with Farmworkers in Durham, NC, read the below statement aloud at last Friday's solemn yet powerful press event in front of the state's Department of Labor building. Join with FAN in recognizing International Workers' Day by remembering agricultural workers among us and perhaps even taking an action step for the campaign for a Harvest of Dignity. 

"As the Bible mentions, "When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and for the alien: I am the Lord your God." Leviticus 23:22.

Each year thousands of immigrants leave their home countries seeking a better life for their families.  They harvest the fruits and vegetables we eat everyday while they risk their lives by doing some of the most dangerous work in our society. Farmworkers make an average income of just $11,000 a year, making them the 2nd lowest paid workforce in the nation. It is time to lift them up and honor their everyday contributions. We believe that every worker, including field and poultry workers, deserves to have safe working and living conditions. We demand a fair and sustainable agricultural system!  

We need to stop and think about the real cost of food. Each year, 5 out of 10 farmworkers in NC cannot afford to feed their families. Each year over 150,000 farmworkers labor in the fields of NC and face inadequate health and safety standards, poor housing conditions, exposure to pesticides and high temperatures, long working hours, heat stroke, nicotine exposure, and exposure to dangerous machinery. Children as young as 12 years old are allowed to work in the fields and most farmworkers are exempt from the right to organize a union, work overtime, take sick leave, or receive workers compensation.

We cannot continue jeopardizing the lives of the people who put food on our table.

We envision a world where students and community members actively work together with farmworkers for justice in the agricultural system.

We envision communities where there is greater interaction, communication, and understanding among people of different backgrounds.

We envision a world in which farmworkers are empowered to take leadership in the farmworker justice movement and their local communities.

We envision a world where consumers will be more aware of where their food comes from, who grows it, harvests it, and packages it, and the conditions of its production.

One day, all farmworkers will have dignity in their work and livelihood."

--Yazmin Garcia Rico, April 26, 2013



Land, Food, and Farm Work: North Carolina’s History and Now

By: Erin Krauss

There are reminders all around us that North Carolina is a state born and bred on agriculture. Many folks who live in the Triangle live in geographic regions that shelter agriculture from regular view. But despite the urban routines, hustle and bustle of traffic and at least the perception that we are urban…on the whole, we are not. Even in urban settings hot with pavement, back yard farms are popping up more and more in between city blocks. We are indeed a state that thrives on the land. North Carolina’s history and its future depend wholeheartedly on the agriculture sector. Even popular culture is leaning more in the direction of recognizing the power, the trend, and the sources of food. The last few years have seen an upsurge in the “foodie” scene, farmers markets, and programming that supports small-scale farm efforts and education for people interested in farming. One example of our community’s embrace of farming as a valid lifestyle and business venture lies in the upcoming Piedmont Farm Tour. This farm tour event provides an opportunity for locals to connect with small & medium sized farms in action and to support local and organic agriculture.

Then, there are reminders from the large-scale industrial community about the crucial and precarious nature of agriculture. Still dominant over NC’s food production, this sector (produce, poultry, hog farms, tree production, tobacco, etc.) also sustains the state’s economy and provides massive exports nationwide. Recent news from this sector has stressed the importance of the ability to hire willing workers in order to sustain this essential economic backbone. Amidst the prospect of potential immigration reform in the near future, as well as new E-Verify legislation in NC, agribusiness leaders have been speaking out locally and nationally. Their message reminds us that we are all dependent on human labor to supply our food, and securing employees to do this labor can be difficult. In light of this, farm owners are asking to be granted more legal ways (agriculture visas) to hire workers. While having more legal means is a valid ask, we in the farmworker justice movement know there are many other factors involved in the challenging nature of finding workers – including the demanding nature of the work and the blatant mistreatment the workers endure.

North Carolina’s connection to land and food production is all around us. From trendy food trucks, to educational farm programs, to community events that use visiting farms as a source of entertainment, to large-scale mono-crops– agriculture is vital to NC. But more often than not, our attention is focused on three things: 1. Enjoying tasty products of agriculture (local, organic &large-scale industrial.) 2. Learning the art of agriculture (reviving the business and the integrity behind it.) 3. Upholding concern and respect for farm owners (small, medium and large.) But let’s not forget that among all the subgroups affected by agriculture in NC, there lives a vast population of farmworkers who often are invisible. As we venture out to the farm-tours this weekend, and admire the work of small and medium farmers, let us also remember the many farms in NC where adults and children are working in the fields, often without the same rights as those in other sectors. As we enjoy the ever growing “foodie” sector in the Triangle, let us remember that vendors exist because of the 178,000 farm and poultry workers who make food products possible in NC. And as we hear more about NC’s large scale farmers advocating for legal means by which to hire willing labor for back-braking work in the fields, we must not allow this sector nor the government to the forget the rights of the workers amidst this debate. While farm owners desire to expand access to guest-worker visas, workers that are involved in the guest worker program now (and those who work on farms with no documentation) face extreme challenges and unjust treatment. As we reap the benefits of living in this agriculture state, let’s also work for change and justice in agriculture. Justice...A word that historically has hardly been a tenant of NC’s guiding principals for farming, but should be our vision for NC's farming future. 

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