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A Farmworker Institute for Farmworkers

By Anna Jensen, NC Farmworkers' Project

For 13 years, the Farmworker Advocacy Network has been bringing farmworker advocates together to strategize, share stories, and work collaboratively on legislation, enforcement, and farmworkers protections across North Carolina. This year, FAN expanded its effort to bring farmworkers themselves together from across the state to share their own stories, learn together, and support each others’ struggles.

On a Sunday in May, 22 field and poultry workers from Morganton to Kinston gathered at a church in Fuquay-Varina to meet each other, attend workshops about topics relevant to their lives, and relax on a day off work. The event, planned by members of FAN’s Worker Solidarity subcommittee, featured workshops on nutrition, phone apps that can be useful to farmworkers, immigration, theater performance, and workers’ rights. The lunch break included time for karaoke, and the day concluded with a raffle of donated items like soccer balls, speakers, and duffel bags.

Workers who participated said it was good to meet people and to have the chance to learn. Workers spoke highly of the nutrition workshop because it was practical and interactive. Other workers expressed an interest in knowing more about using theater to talk about difficult topics and to promote social justice.

In past years, some farmworkers have had the opportunity to travel to the Farmworker Institute, where advocates from across North Carolina gather for workshops every year. While the experience has always been valuable for workers and advocates, this year, the decision was made for farmworkers to have their own Institute so that more workers could participate, and so that FAN could offer more workshops relevant to farmworkers’ lives. Many workers can’t attend the Institute because it is held on a weekday during work hours, so participation is limited to workers who aren’t working or who feel comfortable asking their bosses for a day off. The decision to hold a separate event was in hopes that workers would have more of a chance to talk to each other, to build connections with workers from across the state, and to feel that they belonged in a space that taught advocacy and organizing.  While this year’s event was small, it offered workers the chance to form meaningful connections, and we hope to create more such spaces for workers in the future!


A Personal History of Progressive Support for Farmworker Union Organizing

By Dave Austin, Triangle Friends of Farmworkers

In 1976, fresh out of public health graduate school and the Peace Corps, I got hired as a staff member with the Carolina Brown Lung Association (CBLA), a non-profit organization advocating for workers’ compensation for workers incapacitated by the severely disabling disease called byssinosis, and for workplace standards to limit the cotton dust in textile mills that caused the disease, also known as “brown lung.”  When I started I knew next-to-nothing about how the workers’ comp system worked, or didn’t work …. and only a little bit more about workplace safety & health standards, how they were created, implemented and enforced …. or not. 

I look back on my 10-year experience with the CBLA with some pride because the organization successfully fought for and won some important policy changes.  Whereas in 1972 brown lung wasn’t even recognized as an occupational disease in the U.S., by the early 1980s the workers’ compensation system had changed significantly to recognize that brown lung was indeed caused by concentrated cotton dust in the mills and to create a protocol of diagnosis and workplace attribution that allowed hundreds of disabled textile workers to finally receive workers’ compensation.  For thousands before then it was too late, but it was something.   The disabled textile workers we helped to organize had everything to do with those changes.    

I also look back with some chagrin on my own naivete and obliviousness with regard to the effort to clean up the mills.  Because beyond the CBLA’s efforts to change brown lung compensation, we also wanted to prevent the disease. To do this we had to force OSHA to develop a workplace standard that would minimize cotton dust exposure.  

We did organize retired, disabled textile workers to testify about how they had contracted disabling brown lung after as little as one or two years in dusty areas of the mills, and this did have some significant effect in the 1978 promulgation of OSHA’s cotton dust standard (CDS).  But we had little access to active mill workers for the simple reason that we couldn’t offer them protection from getting fired if they took a stand.  The textile union (ACTWU) was a leader in pressuring for CDS passage and then fighting off the many industry appeals of the standard, as well as the actual implementation of the standard inside the mills – which, after all, was where it really mattered. 

Of ACTUW’s critical role, I was pretty oblivious.  Building/maintaining/organizing the CBLA seemed the most important thing in the world, and – although the intensity and passion of that 10 years of work was something I’ll always remember – I now look back and wonder how I could have missed what was right in front of my face: the importance of union protections in any kind of workplace movement.  And I wonder what I could have/should have done to support that effort.  ACTWU won an incredible victory in 1974 in winning a union vote at JP Stevens plants in Roanoke Rapids, but for me it came out of the blue.  And it took ACTWU 6 more long years before it was finally able to force JP Stevens to sign a contract.  Might it have been less if I and other progressives had supported ACTWU more? 

For several years now I’ve volunteered with organizations that support farmworker union organizing, namely the Triangle Friends of Farmworkers (TFF) and the National Farm Worker Ministry (NFWM).  One frustration is that the importance of union organizing seems even less salient today to young progressives, and the public, than it was to me 40 years ago.  I believe progressives need to acknowledge better the absolute necessity of union protections in the workplace that can encourage workers themselves to create, fight for, and win control over their own lives.  Until workers themselves can take a collective stand, without fear of retaliation, significant changes in policies or laws or corporate or farm-level practices are impossible to imagine.  And, without significant public support, union organizing becomes an even more arduous and fragile exercise.  Unions depend on the dues of their members for organizing resources; farmworker union organizing needs considerable public support because seasonal work and the exploitive wage levels of farmworkers means dues contributions are incredibly low. 

Union organizing efforts operate within a legal framework that offers workers at least some protections in exercising legal rights.  Throughout the early decades of the 20th century workers fought to create that framework.  This is why TFF and NFWM focus efforts on support for labor organizations whose members are farmworkers, like the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC). FLOC has won benefits for members through collective bargaining. These benefits were previously seen as important but improbable legislative reform goals.  FLOC is now involved in spreading the right to collectively bargain (beyond the farmworkers currently covered through FLOC’s contract with the NC Growers’ Association) to thousands more farmworkers in the Southern supply chain of tobacco giants such as Reynolds American. To learn more or get involved, contact Triangle Friends of Farmworkers at:  daustin@mindspring.com;  or  the National Farm Worker Ministry at: salan@nfwm.org  for ideas on how to help, such as driving farmworker-leaders in FLOC to and from critical regional organizing meetings.   Forty years from now, I hope more people can look at farmworker organizing victories and say “we played a key role in that effort”.  


Congress is Late to the Party: Blocking Farmworkers' Rights to Pesticide Information 

by Elisa Lazzarino, Toxic Free NC 

Farmworkers and their advocates across the country find themselves caught in the middle of a battle between the agrochemical industry, its allies in Congress, and the EPA. At the heart of this conflict is a rider attached to the EPA’s annual funding bill, which would block the agency’s funding to implement and enforce a controversial clause requiring growers to furnish information about the pesticides they use to farmworkers or third-party representatives of farmworkers. Members of the House Committee on Agriculture claim that their decision to constrain the EPA was prompted by the EPA’s lack of transparency in reviving this rule without explicitly notifying members of Congress. However, the dynamics of the situation might reveal more about the Committee’s relationship with industry more than their irritation at EPA’s conduct.

Representatives from the Farm Bureau argue that the requirement places an unfair burden on growers, who might then become targets for activists seeking to use employee disputes to make a political statement, as the clause has no criteria as to who can serve as a third-party representative for farmworkers. Growers and agrochemical producers also fear such a requirement would disadvantage them legally and hurt their profits in the event of a lawsuit from a third-party representative. Growers claim that they would have no objection to requests for pesticide information from the workers themselves, but are strongly opposed to exposing themselves to lawsuits and public criticism. Despite this outcry from powerful voices in the agricultural industry and its supporters in Congress, the EPA chose to continue with the clause after a period of public comment, in which they concluded that the industry brought forth no new information, and support for the measure from those outside industry was overwhelming.

Farmworker advocates, however, argue that growers’ complaints are simply unfounded and ignorant of the legitimate reasons for the provision of third-party representatives for farmworkers, such as the event that a farmworker is ill, injured, or otherwise incapacitated. Given that farmworkers are already greatly disadvantaged in contrast to the immense power that growers and industry hold, particularly their unyielding support from many elected officials and agricultural regulators, farmworker advocates reject growers’ claims of unfairness with respect to the implications of this clause. Advocates point to the numerous legal and social constraints placed on farmworkers.

For example, despite their enormous contribution to the economy and the national food supply, farmworkers have almost none of the labor rights that workers in other industries take for granted, such as protections from employer retaliation against unionizing workers, and the right to collective bargaining. Farmworkers are not guaranteed overtime pay, and despite the high risk of injury and illnesses from exposure to both pesticides and extreme heat, neither do they generally receive workers’ compensation as most growers are exempt from federal requirements. Additionally, only commercial-scale farming operations are required to pay their workers minimum wage, and still many growers only pay their workers according to the quantity of produce they pick, requiring workers to pick several tons of produce to earn the amount that workers in other industries might earn in an hour at indoor, sedentary jobs. Shockingly, child labor laws for agricultural work are also far more lenient than they are in most other industries. Children as young as ten may perform agricultural work around heavy machinery, in intense heat, and in the presence of toxic chemicals with the consent of their parents, where in most other industries the minimum working age is at least fourteen.

In addition to these economic disadvantages, social and cultural circumstances, as well as historical events, created a massive decline in agricultural profits in Mexico and Central America, the origin point of the majority of farmworkers, and made migrant agricultural work in the US one of just few viable options for disenfranchised farmers from this region. Far-reaching trade agreements like NAFTA, which provided generous subsidies to US growers, destabilized the Mexican agricultural market and severely undercut the prices of Mexican producers, driving many of them to come to the US to look for work at much lower pay relative to cost of living. Another crucial distinguishing factor among farmworkers is the fact that large portion that are undocumented are effectively prevented from advocating for themselves through the normal channels used by documented workers of other industries in the US. Fear of retaliation from their employers, which could jeopardize not only their safety and livelihood, but the stability of their families, prevents many farmworkers from speaking out against employer abuses. Finally, perhaps the most pressing reason farmworker advocates support stronger requirements of growers to provide pesticide exposure information to their workers is that this information is often essential to physicians in making an accurate diagnosis of illnesses which are often asymptomatic until years after the initial exposure. In almost any other field, workers exposed to hazardous chemicals would have the freedom to seek necessary information about their illness, but without legal requirements on their employers, farmworkers simply do not have this freedom.



Speaking of bathrooms...

by Clermont Ripley, Workers' Rights Project, North Carolina Justice Center

Speaking of bathrooms…

Who gets to use which bathroom in public spaces in North Carolina has gotten a lot of attention lately thanks to HB2, which was passed by the North Carolina General Assembly during a special one day session in April.  But there is another group of North Carolinians who are also being denied bathroom access: poultry workers.  

Low wage workers at poultry processing plants across the state have long complained about not being given enough time to take bathroom breaks while at work.  Most poultry processing is done by workers lined up along a moving belt with chickens flying by at a rate of 140 birds per minute.  They cannot leave the line to take a break unless someone is there to take their spot on the line.  As a result, workers end up limiting their fluid intake or just holding it – both options have adverse medical consequences.  No Relief, a new publication from Oxfam America as part of their campaign to improve working conditions in poultry plants, reports that many poultry workers resort to wearing adult diapers in order to avoid discomfort and embarrassment at work.  Oxfam also reports that workers who do request bathroom breaks often have to wait an hour to be allowed to go, but many other workers don’t even request breaks because they are scared of punished or threats of retaliation.

Workers at Case Farms in Morganton, North Carolina are fed up with the lack of bathroom access.  They are asking their plant manager to adopt a policy of allowing workers bathroom breaks within a reasonable amount of time after the worker’s request: 10 minutes.  They are also asking the plant manager to ensure that the line supervisors actually carry out this bathroom break policy.  The Farmworker Advocacy Network is proud of the brave stand these poultry workers are taking and is supporting their demand for basic respect and dignity in the workplace.  You can lend your voice to their campaign by signing this petition.  




Join our Workers Memorial Day 2016 service April 28th in Raleigh

Honor the dead, demand the living at NCDOL do more to protect workers.

Join us 10 AM Thursday, April 28th for a press conference and solemn memorial service to honor the 128 workers who died on the job in North Carolina in 2014 and to call for the North Carolina Department of Labor to do more to prevent workplace injuries and fatalities. We will ring a bell 128 times to memorialize each person who died while working for a better life.

Who: NC State AFL-CIO, NC Justice Center, NC Council of Churches, Farm Labor Organizing Committee, Student Action with Farmworkers, Action NC, and others

What: Solemn memorial service and press conference on Workers’ Memorial Day

When: Thursday, April 28, 2016, at 10:00 AM – WEAR BLACK!

Where: Bicentennial Mall, across from the legislative building, 16 W. Jones St., Raleigh, NC 27601

Why: 128 workers died on the job in 2014 – 128 too many and evidence that the Department of Labor needs to DO MORE to protect the lives and health of working people on the job

RSVP: bit.ly/wmdral2016

Grab the flyer for WMD 2016 (PDF):

Grab the flyer (PDF)



Farmworkers and the ACA

The deadline for enrolling in the Health Insurance Marketplace came and went at the end of January. Though the ACA open enrollment period has passed, those experiencing certain life events – including marriage, moving, or a change in immigration status – may be eligible for a special enrollment period. While these life events may seem obvious to some, others may not realize that they are eligible for coverage.

For H2-A workers who enter this country to work for a specific period of time, once their visas are stamped and they enter the US, they gain lawful immigration status and become eligible for a special enrollment period (SEP) to enroll in health care coverage. However, in North Carolina 90% of all farmworkers do not have health insurance for a variety of reasons. Farmworkers must enroll within 60 days of arriving in North Carolina, and there is a limited number of in-person assisters to help them with their applications, especially since farmworkers work long hours. Finally, growers or workers themselves simply do not realize that H2-A workers are eligible. Likewise, farmworkers require frequent follow-up to help them after the enrollment process to translate mail and troubleshoot errors, such as​ missing tax credits or misplaced insurance payments.

Agricultural labor is one of the most dangerous lines of work. Farmworkers do particularly grueling jobs that involve repetitive motions, exposure to the heat and pesticides,​ and working with heavy machinery. For these reasons, farmworkers need access to health care. With the Affordable Care Act their health plans cover basic care – doctor’s visits, physicals and hospital stays. The average cost for health insurance is $20 to $80 a month. Farmworkers and their families are a particularly vulnerable group and are greatly​ in need of the peace of mind that they will be able to afford health care and be able to continue doing farm labor if they are hurt on the job.

There are many health organizations in North Carolina working hard to improve access to health care for farmworkers. One such group is the North Carolina Farmworkers Project, located in Benson, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping farmworkers improve their living conditions and increasing access to health care. Last year, they enrolled more than 200 workers through collaborations with other organizations at enrollment events in May and July timed to meet workers when they arrive in the state. They have many success stories, one being a farmworker whose insurance coverage started on July 1 and who suffered a broken leg on July 4, but thanks to his health insurance he was able to go to a local hospital and physical therapy was covered when he got out. If he had not had health insurance,​ his bills would have been more than $30,000, and he would have had limited access to local, affordable physical therapy without his insurance.

The NC Farmworkers Project proves that local organizations are needed to do the work of expanding health care coverage to people who require​ it the most, especially in rural areas. Through specialized outreach strategies and community partnerships, we can improve the lives of those who desperately need access to health care and are able to sign up for marketplace coverage.


The Pay Stub Disclosure Act

From Interfaith Worker Justice (http://www.iwj.org/)

As many as 20 million U.S. working men and women, including farmworker and poultry workers, do not receive pay stubs outlining how their pay is calculated or what deductions were taken from their wages. Too often, workers who don't receive pay stubs are victims of wage theft, cheated of the pay they legally earned.

Currently, there is no there is no federal requirement that employers give workers pay stubs. Without a paystub, workers are not only at a disadvantage in determining if they have been paid correctly, but without documentation, they have difficulty proving the violation.

In January, Representative Bobby Scott has introduced a bill, The Pay Stub Disclosure Act (HR 4376), in the US House of Representatives requiring employers to provide workers with information that employers are already required to keep and thereby help deter wage theft.

The Pay Stub Transparency Act would:


  • Require a uniform federal pay stub, making it easier for multi-state employers who currently face a patchwork of varying state laws.
  • Require employers to provide information to employees covered by the Fair Labor Standards Act’s minimum wage and overtime requirements, with a pay stub that explain how their wages are calculated, including whether they were paid overtime.
  • Give employees the right to inspect their employers’ pay records.
  • Give employees the ability to go to court to seek financial remedy when their rights to a pay stub or records inspection are violated.
  • Codify the legal presumption that if an employer fails to keep records of an employee’s pay, the employee’s own credible evidence and testimony about his or her pay is presumed to be true.


The Pay Stub Transparency Act is important because wage theft, which is rampant in throughout the U.S, is especially devastating for workers in low-wage jobs. Too often, workers’ pay is illegally whittled down by undercounting the hours they worked, paying illegal wage rates or taking unauthorized deductions.

Many workers are paid in cash, by check without any explanation or calculation, or with a payroll debit card that either doesn’t have a pay stub feature or that charges workers a fee to see their pay stubs. One recent study of 4,000 low-paid workers found that 57 percent did not get a paystub.

By requiring employers to provide pay stubs, workers will receive more of their legally owed wages and deter wage theft.

First, employers would think twice about underpaying workers their wages if the hours and wage rates had to be reported regularly on a paystub. Studies show that those employers who pay in cash or without proper paystubs are often ones who steal wages from workers. 

Second, workers who understand how they are paid (or underpaid) would be better equipped to talk with their employers about discrepancies between their own records and the employers’. 

Third, workers who discovered that their employers were cheating and couldn’t resolve the problems directly with their employers would have better information for filing a wage complaint.

The Pay Stub Disclosure Act is a common-sense piece of legislation that will help workers know their rights to be properly paid, will give them the tools to ensure that they are being compensated as they should be, and in if necessary, the proof and documentation they need to help recover stolen wages.

Consider calling your Congressperson to ask that they co-sponsor this common-sense piece of legislation.



New! Facts about North Carolina's Poultry Processing Workers

Farmworker Advocacy Network’s (FAN) Harvest of Dignity campaign has recently published a new factsheet on poultry processing in North Carolina, one of the state’s top agricultural commodities. This new resource contrasts the profits of the billion-dollar poultry industry with the health and safety hazards, poverty-level wages, and fear that many of the poultry processing workers face in North Carolina.   

 “… a closer look inside this profitable industry reveals hazardous work conditions and low wages for its workers, with few workplace protections and a climate of discrimination.” 

Read and/or download the full factsheet and recommendations here

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