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A New Meaning of El Día de Los Muertos

Photo courtesy of SAF intern, Lucia ConstantineI approached the stairs where the beautifully decorated altar stood, my heart started beating louder than normal and it was time to confront the uneasy feeling I was experiencing all morning. “Hello and Bienvenidos to FAN’s annual Día de Los Muertos,” were the first words I said as I attempted to overcome my fear of public speaking. I got a grip of the podium, located my focus point, and glanced at my notes as I led the symbolic event where all 70 of us gathered to celebrate the lives of farm and poultry workers who were injured or died on the job in North Carolina. The undesirable feelings eventually faded away as I reminded myself the purpose of our gathering on that rainy Sunday afternoon.   

A few months prior to the event, I was assigned to a team to help plan and carry out the event. Along with a few other tasks, I was responsible for researching the death of farm and poultry workers as well as writing short obituaries that would be read to the audience during the event -  easy enough, right? Surprisingly enough, the task to locate the number of farm and poultry worker deaths was much more difficult than I had anticipated. Unaware of the Department of Labor’s unwillingness to report workers death, I was disappointed to find out that many workers’ deaths go uncounted or acknowledged in a state that prides itself in being the largest user of H-2A workers in the nation. The only information I had was a list of 40 agricultural worker fatalities or injuries that listed a name, age, county and in one word, a description of their unfortunate incident. Out of the long list, all I was able to locate was a small twenty-second report on Alejandro Cortes, a 36-year- old who suffocated to death after falling into a grain bin in Monroe, North Carolina.

Photo courtsy of SAF intern, Lucia Constantine

 Upset by the little recognition of his death, I called the news station that released the story and the sheriff that was present at the scene of Alejandro’s death to only be told that his death continues to be under investigation by the Federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Alejandro’s untimely death has given me a new meaning of el Día de Los Muertos/ Day of the Dead, a tradition held by many Latino families in celebration of honoring and remembering the life of deceased loved ones. His death has lead me to acknowledge a population that receives very little recognition, but does so much to provide goods to consumers like myself. This rich tradition has contributed to my personal and professional values as a social worker. It is my responsibility to continue challenging the social injustice that agricultural workers encounter every day in our North Carolina fields. It is my duty to prevent oppression, eliminate worker exploitation, and advocate for better enforced laws. As the Advocacy and Organizing intern with Student Action with Farmworkers, I am gaining the skills required to uphold the organization’s vision where students and community members actively work together with farmworkers for justice in the agricultural system. Our agricultural workers deserve more recognition than to solely be listed on a piece of paper with a name, age, and county.

 The Farmworker Advocacy Network (FAN), a coalition of North Carolina organizations working for better working and living conditions for farm and poultry workers, convenes a Day of the Dead/Día de los Muertos community altar and press conference annually. It is one of FAN’s many activities to engage the community and to advocate with and for farmworkers for worker dignity and justice.


Lives on the Line -- A New Report on U.S. Poultry Workers

"Chicken is the most popular meat in the country; Americans consume 89 pounds per capita every year. Yet the people who process the birds that end up on our plates remain largely invisible. Over the past 50 years, poultry has ballooned to a $50 billion industry—while nearly a quarter of a million workers in the processing plants endure dangerous conditions and poverty-level wages every day," begins the Executive Summary of a compelling new report and interactive website from Oxfam America, Lives on the Line

North Carolina ranks #3 in the nation for poultry production. In fact, it is our state's top agricultural commodity. But little is known about the thousands of workers in our state who work on dangerously fast production lines, earning low wages and enduring a climate of fear. One of FAN's member organizations, the Western North Carolina Workers Center, played an important role in Oxfam's report, assisting for years with research and interviews with poultry plant employees. 

Take a moment to visit and share this interactive website that offers a glimpse inside the hidden side of a booming industry and learn more about things you can do to help those whose lives are on the line. 


FAN issues Press Statement on EPA's New Worker Protection Standard


Press contacts: Preston Peck, Toxic Free NC – (919) 833-1123,

Strengthened Federal Worker Protection Standard Applauded in North Carolina, but Focus Now Turns to Enforcement

RALEIGH, NC, October 12, 2015. The amended Worker Protection Standard (WPS)--the set of agricultural worker safety requirements overseen by the EPA--includes strengthened and new provisions intended to further protect farmworkers and pesticide applicators from exposure to pesticides. These new rules establish a minimum age of 18 for pesticide handlers; increases the frequency of worker safety training from once every five years to every year; improves the content and quality of worker safety trainings; provides new rules on decontamination and personal protective equipment; and improves the quality of information that workers receive about the pesticides that have been applied at their workplace.

“These provisions are a strong step forward toward protecting North Carolina’s farmworkers and their families from the detrimental effects of pesticides,” said Preston Peck, Policy Advocate with Toxic Free NC. “However, we will now be turning our focus towards the EPA and the North Carolina Department of Agriculture to ensure that this standard is effectively implemented and enforced”.

North Carolina’s Farmworker Advocacy Network (FAN), a coalition that advocates for farmworkers’ rights, played a strong role in the development of these provisions through collecting dozens of statements from farmworkers and others in the state who provide direct services to them during the EPA’s public comment period to ensure that farmworkers’ voices were heard by regulatory agencies. In April 2014, the coalition facilitated an in-person listening session at the annual NC Farmworker Institute with key EPA staff to hear directly from workers about their experiences with pesticides and their opinions about the proposed changes.

“It was crucial to let farmworkers have a say in the updates to the laws that affect them daily,” says Nadeen Bir, Advocacy and Organizing Director at Student Action with Farmworkers. “FAN will continue our conversations with farmworkers to determine how the improved standard is actually being implemented.”

Some provisions that FAN wanted in the new WPS, such as medical monitoring, were absent from the final provisions released on Monday. They say that they now wish to partner with the EPA and the North Carolina Department of Agriculture to ensure that the new rules are implemented swiftly and that there is strong enforcement of the safety standard. Farmworkers have been on the front lines of occupational exposure to pesticides for decades, and many have suffered acute and chronic symptoms from close contact with toxic pesticides in the fields. It has taken more than 20 years for the Worker Protection Standard to be updated and revised, but farmworkers, advocates, health providers and residents of rural communities hope that EPA’s improved rule leads to real improvements in workplace safety for agricultural workers.




The U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of International Labor Affairs Grants Funds to West Africa – But What About the Children in the U.S.?

Zulema Lopez, one of the three farmworker children featured in the film, The Harvest.Most recently, a grant of $12 million provided by U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of International Labor Affairs to West Africa. The purpose of this grant is to help reduce child labor in the cocoa industry of Côte d'Ivoire and Ghana. The grants are intended to fund projects that will ensure children in Côte d'Ivoire receive quality education, learn marketable skills, and employ at safe and age-appropriate jobs. Furthermore, a portion of the funds will aid efforts to empower local communities to take initiative in developing an action plan and bring awareness of child labor in cocoa growing areas. More information about this grant can be found on the U.S. Department of Labor website.

Although the idea sounds promising to this particular community, it is important to recognize that child labor is occurring in the United States. While the U.S. department of Labor acknowledges the issue of child labor in other countries, it also continues to neglect the thousands of children working U.S agricultural industries. According to the National Center for Farmworker Health, INC., it is estimated that hundreds of thousands of children under the age of 18 work in the farms picking the fruits and vegetables that support the multi-billion dollar agricultural industry in the United States. Shockingly enough, children are allowed to work in agricultural as early as age 7 for a few hours, and usually by age 12 they are out of school.

Can you imagine a 7 year old carrying buckets of sweet potatoes across the fields to simply be paid a few dollars a day? I ask myself how is it possible that while children in the U.S. continue to work in hazardous work conditions that my country is focused on funding projects that try to stop this in other countries? Friends please imagine a child you may know and picture them working in the fields, exposed to heat, pesticides, hazardous machinery, and most importantly, deprived of their childhood while our government allows it. 



Imagine that Farmworkers Were Not Afraid of Losing Their Jobs

By: Dave Austin, FLOC Organizer 

At the 4/16/15 Farmworker Institute I again had the pleasure of talking with farmworker support organization staff from around the state about their important work. The organizations ranged from farmworker health services to legal aid services to housing rehab services to faith-based institutions providing material and spiritual aid to farmworkers.  These dedicated folks are uniformly devoted to their work, and to farmworkers. But I couldn’t help hearing some frustration and resignation in their voices when I asked about the impacts they feel they are making.  For example, staff of an organization that provides health services for migrant farmworkers talked to me about barriers they face. Certainly farmworkers face living and working condition hazards that result in poor health.  But beyond that truism, I heard these service providers saying things like:

  •  Identifying health risks/hazards for farmworkers through health education and training has little impact, because farmworkers are powerless to insist on changes – especially if those changes would cost the grower.
  • Workers are extremely reluctant to ask for time off for illness, or to see a health care provider about symptoms. They fear losing wages, and also retaliation. They fear for their jobs.
  • The opportunity to enact more effective health & safety regulations and laws is severely limited because the current political climate tends in the opposite direction and/or there is no worker constituency that can argue on its own behalf, and behind which supporters could rally. And even if a new regulation was passed, it’s doubtful there would be meaningful enforcement on the ground. 

The responses from staff in other farmworker service sectors (e.g. legal support of worker rights; housing) were pretty similar.  A summarizing conclusion might be: no matter how good our outreach; no matter how well and conveniently we provide services; no matter how strategically we plan policy change campaigns, farmworkers’ fear of losing their jobs, or discrimination on the job, stalls their participation. And that participation is absolutely essential to meaningful accomplishment for our organizations/agencies. Farmworkers’ fear undercuts the impacts we might have.   

My own conclusion is that, over the years, there are more and more farmworker support organizations/agencies, working harder and harder, but – as illustrated in SAF’s film Harvest of Dignity – having only limited significant impact on farmworkers’ lives across the state.  As a volunteer with the Farmworker Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC), I believe that only membership in a union can afford a farmworker the job protection that will allow him/her to collaborate with, to facilitate, and to benefit from, the services that farmworker support organizations provide.

While many people know little about FLOC or how a union operates, with each successful grievance resolution more FLOC members understand how the union works. Building the union is painstaking work. And the work is not just in the fields and labor camps. To build farmworker organizations, there must be “freedom of association” for farmworkers – that is, farmworkers must have the legally protected right to join together in whatever kind of association they decide they need. To achieve that right, FLOC is coordinating a “corporate campaign” that is pressuring RJ Reynolds and the other international tobacco companies to affirm this right, and its guaranteed implementation “on the ground”  -- because only large corporate commodity processors like RJR have the power and resources to insure this systemic change of a major guarantee of human rights for farmworkers in the commodity chain.  

This corporate campaign requires engaging diverse allies, from national faith based organizations to the international allies, like progressive members of the British Parliament, and labor allies in Europe.  It is also a massive job. Farmworker unions, like Cesar Chavez’ United Farm Workers, have succeeded only when there was consistent, strong public support.  That help is often just showing up – at a rally, at a corporate shareholders meeting, or wherever, because public support is what ultimately wins corporate campaigns – when large corporations finally see what the advocates see – that creating a system that recognizes worker human rights is, ultimately, a win-win for corporate processors, for growers, and for workers.    

There would seem to be no more natural allies for farmworker union organizing than staff/volunteers/friends of farmworker support organizations --  because you already know about the conditions farmworkers face, including their fear of losing their jobs. I hope you will hear this plea to lend support – either organizationally, or personally, or both, to the farmworker union organizing effort. 



What Makes the North Carolina Farmworker Institute Unique

On April 16, more than 150 farmworker advocates gathered at the United Church of Chapel Hill to network with each other and learn about issues affecting farmworkers. Workshops included an update on how DACA and DAPA expansion will affect farmworkers, an explanation of the Affordable Care Act in relation to farmworkers, and a discussion of camp access and using songwriting as an outreach tool with farmworkers. The keynote speaker, Neftali Cuello, a farmworker youth and activist, delivered a powerful spoken word poetry piece about her experiences in the fields and the need for justice for farmworkers. It was a beautiful day of learning new things, sharing experiences, challenging assumptions, and growing in both faith and practice.

In its sixth year, the Farmworker Institute developed out of programs of the NC Council of Churches Farmworker Ministry Committee. Today the annual summit has expanded to include people working in health outreach, legal services, advocacy, and faith (I met some wonderful people of faith, including a representative of the Society of St. Andrew’s and a group from Church Women United).  What grew out of Jesus’ Good News to the poor and oppressed now includes all who are motivated to seek justice for the oppressed and to advocate for fair wages and work with dignity.

Another exceptional aspect of the Farmworker Institute is that it incorporates the voices of farmworkers themselves. This year 22 farmworkers attended the event and received training about their rights and reported back to decision makers about what their needs are. This was my third year attending the event and my first year serving on the Planning Committee; every year I continue to be impressed by the skills, knowledge, and resources of the other farmworker advocates in North Carolina. In fact, the very first South Carolina Farmworker Institute is taking place this month, demonstrating the importance of an event such as this.  The NC Farmworker Institute truly embodies Cesar Chavez’s words about the message of Jesus: “He is calling us to ‘hunger and thirst after justice’ in the same way that we hunger and thirst after food and water: that is, by putting our yearning into practice.”

The 2015 NC Farmworker Institute Planning Committee


The Right to Migrate

By Catherine Crowe, SAF Intern

On February 23rd, the Kenan Institute for Ethics at Duke University hosted a symposium on Unaccompanied Child Migration to explore the ethical implications of unaccompanied minors crossing national borders. The symposium featured three speakers who have all done significant work with migrant youth- Jacqueline Bhabha, Marcelo M. Suárez-Orozco and Susan Terrio.

The symposium focused on the contradictory treatment of unaccompanied minors caught crossing the US-Mexico border in its dichotomy between protection and punishment. Should these children be treated as innocent youth or potential criminals with gang affiliations? Jacqueline Bhabha noted that as a country we are profoundly ambivalent about their deservingness and cited a conversation she had in which the children were described as runaways and throwaways. Many have heard immigrants explained as disposable populations or seen their presence in the US reduced to that of a labor supply.

Marcelo M. Suárez-Orozco urged us to see migration in a new light. He said, “Immigration is an ethical act of the family.” It is a way for a member of the family to be in and provide for the family without being physically present. He repeated that mass migration was the face of globalization. He also stated that globalization gave rise to people without the rights to have rights- the stateless and those without authorization to live in their country of residence.

Marcelo also addressed some of the pull factors for migrant workers and stressed the need to understand the state’s role in facilitating and encouraging migrant labor. He claimed that there was nothing more permanent than temporary workers. While many see this phenomenon as a flaw in the system, he argued that it was actually our immigration system that encouraged migrant workers to work in the US temporarily with visas like H2A with the hidden intention that they continue to work permanently, regardless of legal status.

The State then is responsible for the agricultural sector’s dependency on undocumented workers and child labor. Without a supply of workers coerced into working precariously, we would have to actually address the unsustainability and dehumanizing nature of agricultural work including the many legal exceptions that make agricultural work so difficult (like the exemptions from minimum wage, overtime, and workers compensation). As Marcelo stated, we are living in a world in which, “the ethics of rights are cannibalized by the ethics of mights. “

The symposium left me with many questions: In a world where markets are de-territorialized and de-nationalized, why don’t we recognize that people, like money and products, have the right to migrate? How can we advocate for policies that begin to address the rights of those who as Marcelo said, "have no right to rights". In an increasingly globalized world, it is time to redefine rights, not as rights dependent on a state but rights that every person inherently has. As farmworker advocates, we believe that everyone has the right to migrate and the right to a good life.


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.