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No Access to Justice When Employers Use Police Force to Control Farmworkers

Written by Lori Johnson, an attorney with the Farmworker Unit of Legal Aid of North Carolina

Reposted from Law at the Margins


Can there be justice for farmworkers when employers use police force to prevent employees from meeting with counsel?


As a farmworker attorney in North Carolina, simply meeting with my clients poses an ongoing challenge. This reality became clear to me several years ago while meeting with a client outside his home. A squad car pulled into the yard, and fear washed over my client’s face. My client’s employer sought trespass charges against me, even though my client, the actual resident, had invited me. My client had no telephone or means of transportation, so meeting him after work hours where he lived was necessary.

The deputies let me argue my case to a magistrate over the squad car telephone, and she deferred my arrest pending an opinion from the North Carolina Attorney General on whether trespass charges would stand against an attorney present at a labor camp at the invitation of the occupant farmworker. While the resulting opinion was favorable, threatened and actual police force continue to be used against migrant service providers in North Carolina and throughout the nation.

Private property with dog[1]


Can there be justice for farmworkers when employers use police force to prevent employees from meeting with counsel? What happens to client confidentiality when the adverse party threatens criminal sanctions against counsel unless given prior notice of attorney-client meetings?

Spearheaded by Maryland Legal Aid and the Transnational Legal Clinic at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, a nationwide coalition of farmworker advocates now seek a hearing before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) to address these concerns of access to counsel and other rights. The IACHR promotes and defends human rights for member nations of the Organization of American States (OAS).

The request asks the IACHR to hold a hearing on whether the United States has violated the American Declaration on the Rights and Duties of Man and other human rights instruments by failing to ensure that human rights defenders have access to migrant farmworker labor camps. The coalition’s request for a hearing follows prior actions, including a 2012 human rights complaint filed before the United Nations.

Farmworkers typically reside in employer-owned labor camps in remote locations. Since farmworkers, with no personal means of transport, are unable to travel to the non-profit legal service providers, these service providers must instead go to the labor camps during the workers’ free time. Growers, seeking to control their workers, routinely assert that they, and not the actual residents, determine who may enter worker housing. Criminal trespass charges and occasional physical force are used against service providers as a means to isolate farmworkers.

The lack of an effective legal framework securing service provider access to labor camps violates freedom of assembly and association, freedom from arbitrary arrest, and the right to personal security. For farmworkers, being unable to effectively meet with counsel renders due process meaningless. Yet even where state attorney general opinions or case law support a farmworker’s right to have visitors –  generally based on tenancy rights or freedom of association-  law enforcement officials are often unaware of such protections or refuse to acknowledge said rights.

Barnes no trespasscropped

In Fall of 2013, my co-workers made a two hour drive to visit an injured farmworker. The meeting was disrupted when his employers burst into the client’s home and threatened my co-workers with arrest for criminal trespass. The deputy who arrived later declined to make arrests, but the situation made it impossible to continue our client’s interview. In his 911 call, the employer claimed that the injured worker should not have called Legal Aid because, in the employer’s opinion, the worker was already receiving his workers’ compensation benefits.

Employers have used criminal sanctions in attempts to coerce confidential information. A New Jersey legal aid lawyer was recently charged with criminal trespass despite favorable state case law. The municipal prosecutor offered to drop the charges if the attorney agreed to give the employer prior notice before meeting with workers, which the attorney, given confidentiality duties, rightfully refused.  Charges were only dismissed when the employer did not show at trial.  Employers have also demanded disclosure of the worker’s identity in order “to verify” the invitation with the worker. One can imagine how that conversation would play out.

Access to counsel is especially important because farmworkers face greater rates of unlawful and dangerous working conditions. A 2011 North Carolina study found that farmworkers commonly suffer wage theft and pesticide safety violations.  Agriculture is one of the most hazardous occupations, with some of the highest rates of fatal and non-fatal injuries.  Farmworkers are also subject to “agricultural exceptionalism”, i.e., the exempting of farmworkers from rights enjoyed by others, such as basic workplace safety requirements, collective bargaining protections or workers’ compensation.

Employers with the most to hide use force to isolate and control workers. The farm that sought to have me arrested, for example, had a deeply disturbing history. A worker’s brutal death had led to involuntary servitude convictions against its crew managers. Human traffickers tightly control who may enter labor camps as a means to further their trafficking scheme by preventing escape.

While law enforcement should be seen as an ally of farmworkers against human traffickers, the sight of police preventing workers from meeting with counsel sends instead the chilling message that there is no justice in our courts. The coalition demands that the United States be held accountable in ensuring justice for all. The United States has yet to respond to the United Nations Special Rapporteur’s request for a response on this issue. The coalition now moves for a hearing before the IACHR.


Farmworker Advocacy Network Honored with Citizen Award

"What drives people to public service is a sense of possibility."—Henry Hampton, an African-American filmmaker whose productions, including Eyes on the Prize, focused on social justice

(excerpt from IndyWeek coverage 1/29/14)


On Saturday, February 22nd, several members of the Farmworker Advocacy Network joined activists, artists and other members of the North Carolina Triangle region in downtown Durham who were honored with a luncheon and awards ceremony by the Indy, the area’s premier media publication for progressive news, culture and commentary, for making the Triangle a “more just and compassionate place.” The prestigious Citizen Awards are given each year to a handful of people who are recognized for being champions of change in their communities and who often carry out this work with little or no fanfare. FAN is pleased with the opportunity to highlight its issues among the Indy’s readership and also to be counted in the company of inspiring individuals and groups fighting to make our state a better place to work and live.


Clermont Ripley, a member of FAN and attorney with the NC Justice Center, accepted the award on behalf of the coalition. She spoke about FAN’s 10-year tenure of advocacy, research, organizing and public awareness-raising efforts to improve conditions for farm and poultry workers and their families and to strengthen existing laws.

Read the write-up about FAN in the Indy’s special Citizen Awards edition!


Other 2014 award recipients are Monika Johnson-Hostler of the NC Coalition Against Sexual Assault, Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense, Thava Mahadevan of Penny Lane Farm, and three area advocates for the homeless: the Rev. Carolyn Schuldt of Open Table Ministry, the Rev. Hugh Hollowell of Love Wins Ministries, and Durham lawyer Scott Holmes.  A special mention was given to the Rev. William Barber of the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP and Moral Monday protestors. Find out more about these and past honorees here.

FAN thanks the Indy for this esteemed recognition, its coalition members and allies working tirelessly against the tide of an unjust agricultural system, and most of all, the thousands of field and poultry workers and their families in North Carolina for the filling our tables with abundance.


Tough Road Ahead for NC Poultry Workers

Photo by Flickr member: USDAgov

Photo by Flickr member: USDAgov

Guest post by John Zambenini, Duke Divinity School Intern

The Raleigh News & Observer reported recently that work may be getting harder for North Carolina’s poultry workers. If the Obama administration gives the go-ahead, new policies already backed by North Carolina Senator Kay Hagan will allow the difficult speeds at which workers must process chickens to increase. Under the new regulations, the total output of inspected birds would increase from 140 birds per minute to 175.

Facing a dizzying onslaught of chickens and turkeys on fast-moving mechanical equipment, workers risk injuring hands, wrists, and shoulders from the quick, repetitive motions needed to process the birds. A mistake with a knife at such a rate can be costly, and the work often comes with low pay and little protection. Many injuries go unreported, according to the News & Observer story, because workers are afraid of being fired and have few other options for work in the United States.

At a recent Day of the Dead memorial service hosted by the Farmworker Advocacy Network – a statewide coalition which includes the NC Council of Churches – workers told reporters that as they gain experience, the number of birds they must process increases. Pay raises, however, were so meager that with the increased number of birds to process, their wages were effectively cut. With the anticipated changes, the output of poultry processing facilities is expected to increase even more, with little promise of benefit.

On the same day, officials released stats on annual workplace deaths in the state. Despite a decrease from last year, Labor Commissioner Cherie Berry conceded the state must do better, the News & Observer reported. Preventing a death here, or protecting a worker against pesticide exposure or injury there, is a worthwhile endeavor. While increased workplace safety is commendable, incremental reductions of injuries and deaths represents a misguided view of what it means to live and work in North Carolina.

This kind of effort alone creates a culture of acceptable margins of error for injury and death when year-end statistics are released, rather than endeavoring to create a humane, safe and just climate for labor in North Carolina in the first place. It has nothing to say of creating a clean, hospitable environment when migrant workers, upon which the industry is dependent, are employed. This kind of labor culture also has nothing to say for the powerless when increased production is demanded with no promise of the support needed to sustain them.

Meanwhile, industry trade journal Ag Professional is reporting that 2013 meant huge growth in North Carolina’s $70 billion agriculture industry, with continued expansion expected in 2014. The policy changes backed by Sen. Hagan and the poultry industry no doubt promise growth for North Carolina’s $13 billion poultry industry, as well. Progress is evidently being made, growth is happening. But what are we becoming if we grow with little concern for those upon whom we are dependent?

The post Tough Road Ahead for NC Poultry Workers appeared first on NC Council of Churches.


The Journey of Your Christmas Tree


Stand up for poultry workers as America sits down to eat turkey

photo courtesy of the Boston Public Library, via Flickr

Dear friends of farm and poultry workers, 

Did you know that North Carolina ranks 4th in the nation in the poultry industry and generates close to $3 billion in cash receipts? Line speeds at poultry processing plants are dangerously fast--resulting in frequent injuries and even death-- and inspections are few...Yet the US Department of Agriculture is proposing to allow faster line speeds and looser industry rules which will put poultry workers at even greater risk.

Join us and our allies across the nation this Thanksgiving as we take a minute to tweet at the USDA and the US Department of Labor to demand dignity and safety for the workers who helped bring turkey to our tables. Use the hashtag #pardonme and send a message to: @USDAFoodSafety and @LaborSec or click on the "tweet" link in the sentence above. 

Read an action alert from our friends at National Council of La Raza and the Northwest Arkansas Workers' Justice Center here.

Find more facts on the NC poultry industry here

After you tweet, tell you friends and family to do the same! Let's stand up for the workers who put food on our table this Thanksgiving.


Speakers at FAN’s Day of the Dead event call on legislators, regulatory agencies for change

Photographs by Caitlin Bearden

Four speakers at FAN’s Day of the Dead event on Saturday, November 2, testified to the dangerous conditions in North Carolina farm and processing work and called on legislators and enforcement agencies to enact better conditions for workers. Speakers and supporters gathered in front of a Day of the Dead altar at El Centro Restaurant in downtown Raleigh.


Two workers who had traveled from Morganton to speak testified to the dangerous line speed in poultry processing plants, where workers are currently required to process up to 45 chickens per minute. Besides being dangerous, workers recounted that they are not treated with even a basic modicum of dignity; both poultry workers spoke of not being allowed to use the bathroom, even testifying to a case where a pregnant woman was not permitted to use the bathroom and was humiliated by supervisors and nearly fired.


Bacilio Castro, a former poultry worker who is now an organizer with the Western NC Workers’ Center, called on people to make the connection between working conditions and immigration reform. He encouraged those present to contact their congresspeople, since comprehensive immigration reform would allow workers to come out of the shadows and work legally, enabling them to report dangerous conditions without fear of being deported. Clermont Ripley of the NC Justice Center signaled the necessity of better enforcement of existing laws, calling on enforcement agencies to do their part to protect farmworkers in the state.

Volunteers from the audience read obituaries of three North Carolina farmworkers who have died in the last two years, and Nancy Petty, a religious leader from Raleigh, concluded the event with a prayer by Cesar Chavez:

Show me the suffering of the most miserable; 

So I will know my people's plight. 

Free me to pray for others; 

For you are present in every person.

Help me take responsibility for my own life;

So that I can feel free at last.

Grant me courage to serve others;

For in service there is true life.

Give me honesty and patience;

So that I can work with other workers.

Bring forth song and celebration;

So that the Spirit will be alive among us.

Let the Spirit flourish and grow;

So that we will never tire of the struggle.

Let us remember those who have died for justice;

For they have given us life.

Help us love even those who hate us;

So we can change the world.

Answer the call: Act Now

1. Take a minute to like FAN on Facebook and post a comment about these issues. For example: 'I'm outraged that lies and money got in the way of protecting farmworker kids. It's time for Labor Commissioner Berry to stop shirking responsibilities and catering to her special interest groups instead of her real consitutency: workers'. --Emily Drakage, Raleigh, NC

2. Host a short film screening at your church, community organization, or neighborhood pub. We have lots of great films available includingHarvest of DignityOur Forgotten Neighbors, and Uprooted Innocence.

3. Write a letter to the editor of your local paper. These letters really matter - lawmakers take them very seriously. Here's a recent example from the Raleigh News & Observer and here's a toolkit to get you started. 


Honoring and Celebrating the Lives of NC Farmworkers

This Saturday, we will remember farmworkers who have died while working in NC the past few years. Workers and advocates are urged to join us to celebrate the Day of the Dead, at Centro restaurant in Raleigh on Saturday, November 2 at 11:00 am as we gather around a traditional Day of the Dead altar to honor those who have died or become fatally ill on the job.


The Day of the Dead is a cultural and religious holiday celebrated throughout Latin America to honor and celebrate loved ones who have passed on.  This holiday is particularly celebrated in Mexico on the first two days of November. However many countries and cultures recognize similar holidays on these same days-All Saint’s Day and All Soul’s Day.  Traditions associated with the Day of the Dead include creating an altar and decorating it with flowers, sugar skulls, pictures, gifts, personal possessions of the deceased, as well as favorite foods and drinks of the deceased.


This year the Farmworker Advocacy Network celebrates the lives of 3 individuals, farmworkers from Mexico and Guatemala, who have died while working or who have died from the harsh conditions of their work environment. The lives and work of these three men represent the thousands of men, women, and children workers who are exposed daily to the austere living and working conditions, including inadequate housing and exposure to toxic pesticides. Because the labor laws in our country are dangerously antiquated, workers are not adequately protected; therefore their lives are at risk each and every time they step into the fields or into the processing plant.


We ask that you take a few moments today, and join us tomorrow at Centro, to honor and celebrate the lives of North Carolina farmworkers.


RSVP to the Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) event on Saturday: and spread the word!



On Nov. 12, 2012, a 41-year-old migrant farmworker named Alvaro Tomas died after being struck by a truck while harvesting sweet potatoes in Ayden, NC. On the day of the accident, 132 migrant farmworkers were harvesting sweet potatoes in a 30-acre field. The farmworkers were divided into six groups, with one truck per group, and were harvesting sweet potatoes on both sides of the truck. Two workers were in front of each truck setting the pace of the work. Alvaro was one of the farmworkers harvesting sweet potatoes alongside the truck. When his group’s truck was full, the driver backed out of the field so that he would not drive over unharvested sweet potatoes. It is not clear if the driver honked the horn, or verbally told the workers he was going to back up. However, two workers were still behind the truck harvesting when he did. Alvaro Tomas was struck by the truck and died as a result of his injuries. He was from Guatemala but living in a labor camp in Snow Hill at the time of his death. It is believed his brother was working with him when this accident happened. No charges were expected to be filed. We ask that you please take a moment on this Dia de los Muertos to honor Alvaro's life.



 Andres Sandoval from Durango, Mexico, died in March 2013 at 43 years old, single and leaving behind one child and his parents that they lived with. Four years ago while working in crops near Benson, North Carolina, he asked for a doctor’s appointment because he felt like “there was a ball in his stomach” and it bothered him to sleep on that side. After being seen at a rural clinic, he was referred to the hospital and was soon diagnosed with Leukemia. The doctor said clearly that he could live for many years if he followed all of the instructions.

Andres came to the United States year after year for nine years. He was a pesticide applicator in the fields. He believed that his illness was due to his prolonged contact with pesticides. At the end of the agricultural season in 2012 during one of his exams, news for Andres from the doctor was not good; the cancer had changed and they had to make more frequent appointments and changes to his medicines. But his visa was about to expire and he had to return to Mexico. The doctor expressed concern about Andres’ trip and tried to get him to stay with a humanitarian visa, even working on this effort after Andres had left the U.S.. Sadly, Andres died in Mexico after weeks of suffering.

The health outreach team that coordinated care for Andres, at North Carolina Farmworkers Project, say, “He left us with a legacy – his perseverance, his courage, and above all, his great love for agriculture!!! May he rest in peace, our friend Andres!!!”



Manuel Hernandez Florencia was a 45- year old migrant farmworker from Comonfort, Guanajuato, Mexico.  In a tragic accident, Manuel passed away on August 19th, 2013 when he was struck by a car while trying to cross a very dark stretch of highway in Franklin, NC.  He had been living in the United States and working in agriculture for approximately 16 years.  During his time in the United States Manuel worked harvesting a variety of crops including oranges, strawberries, blueberries, tobacco and tomatoes.  He had arrived in Franklin, NC two weeks prior to the accident with a migrant crew to pick tomatoes.  Manuel was living with four other men in an old hotel room, none of whom were related nor knew each other very well.  The hotel was located on a very busy stretch of Highway 441 South which runs between Atlanta, GA and Western North Carolina.  Manuel passed away while trying to walk to the closest store that evening.  He is survived by a son in Florida, a sister in Georgia, and a wife in Comonfort.  Two weeks after his death, Manuel was returned to his family in Comonfort, Guanajuato where he was given a proper burial. We ask that you please take a moment on this Día de los Muertos to honor Manuel’s life.



FAN Stands in Solidarity Against the Agricultural Guestworker Act

The Farmworker Advocacy Network is one of over 200 coalitions, groups, and organizations that have recently signed a letter* opposing Representative Goodlatte’s Agricultural Guestworker Act, H.R. 1773, or the “Ag Act”. We believe this legislation could devastate our nation’s agricultural system and undermine core American values.

 As written in a recent FAN blog post, the Ag Act seeks to lower protections for farmworkers by stripping away decades of worker protections to leave guestworkers virtually no protection from abusive conditions. Employers will not need to verify adequate working conditions, wages or insurance coverage for injuries, thus eliminating oversight of worker’s rights. Additionally, guestworkers are offered no pathway to becoming permanent legal U.S. citizens. Instead they will be required to self-deport with the only the possibility of returning as a temporary guestworker. This would leave temporary workers in a highly vulnerable position to be exploited solely for their labor.

 As a coalition, we strongly oppose the Ag Act and believe it is an unworkable, anti-immigrant and anti- worker approach to our nation’s immigration problems. Hard-working farmworkers do not deserve to be relegated to a permanent 2nd class status apart from their families. As such, the Ag Act stands contrary to our nation’s core values of freedom, equality and family unity. Farmworkers have made invaluable contributions to our country, and they deserve protections that not only keep them safe but uphold their dignity as individuals and workers.

  View the letter opposing the Agricultural Guestworker Act

*This letter has already been sent to members of the House of Representatives, however individuals can still join FAN in saying "NO" to unfair and un-workable farmworker legislation by weighing-in with their members of Congress or by accessing the United Farm Workers action alert calling for immigration reform

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