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Spotlight on NC FIELD

With the recent media attention focused on the Human Rights Watch report about children in North Carolina tobacco fields, I talked with Sarah Gibson, Interim Executive Director of FAN and member of NC FIELD, about their organization and their collaboration with HRW. 

NC FIELD stands for North Carolina Focus on Increasing Education, Leadership & Dignity and is located in Kinston, NC. NC FIELD was founded in 2009 by a group of community members and outreach professionals to address the needs of agricultural communities in Eastern North Carolina. NC FIELD has created a model for farmworkers and farmworker youth to have a voice in issues that affect them. NC FIELD’s core programs include capacity building as a partner to the farmworker community; developing popular education projects that empower farmworkers to resist dangerous heat, pay-gouging, and criminal behaviors of labor contractors; and providing opportunities for farmworkers to learn how to utilize their agricultural knowledge base to generate income.  

NC FIELD has developed a relationship with HRW whereby NC FIELD connects HRW with interviewees during their research phase. NC FIELD also works to ensure that farmworkers have the opportunity to participate in the policy debates and media coverage that follow the release of HRW reports. The partnership began in 2009 before NC Field’s official establishment and led to the 2010 report "Fields of Peril: Child Labor in U.S. Agriculture". Later, HRW staff returned to eastern North Carolina to work with NC FIELD as part of an investigation into sexual harassment of children and women. Since then, NC FIELD and HRW have continued to develop a strong collaborative relationship among these three groups:  farmworkers, whose stories are the pillar of advocacy efforts, NC FIELD as organizers and facilitators, and HRW as an internationally recognized advocate for human rights issues.Photo credit: Peter Eversoll

Sarah Gibson says of the relationship, “Working with Human Rights Watch has been a real privilege. Since the beginning of our partnership, there's been a dynamic of mutual respect for what all parties bring to the table. We appreciate their understanding of grassroots organizing, their reputation in the policy world, and their thorough research into the issues that farmworkers experience on a daily basis. They value our insight into the implications of policies and media attention on farmworkers' daily lives, and our history of building deep relationships within the farmworker community that help HRW stay in touch with the needs and realities of the communities experiencing human rights abuses.”

For the recent report, NC FIELD worked with HRW to ensure that farmworker youth were in DC to talk to policymakers and media during the weeks following the release of the report. Gibson notes that this is important because it gave a face to the news about child labor and harmful practices on tobacco farms. She says, “It’s infinitely more effective for policymakers to have a personal conversation with a child tobacco worker than to read that same child's quote in a report.”Photo credit: Peter Eversoll

If you want to help NC FIELD and its work with farmworkers and their families in NC, you can take action in the following ways:

NC FIELD is a largely volunteer-run organization that is working hard to balance the recent influx of media attention and requests for interviews. Their capacity is based on being able to hire more staff, including farmworkers. Your donation will help allow them to increase their capacity to continue their important work.


The Good Camp


Photo credit and guest post by Michael Durbin

Last summer I accompanied Student Action with Farmworkers (SAF) interns doing educational and health care outreach at migrant farmworker camps.  The camps were generally dismal places, run down and ill-maintained and no place I’d ever want to spend the night. Except for one.

It was mid July. Hot. I had been in the car with Julie King and Danny Guzman-Ramos for the better part of a day, our shirt-backs sticking to the seats, following leads to camps where they hoped to register OSYs (Out of School Youth) for classes.

It had not been a fruitful day. After several hours of hop scotching the South Carolina blacktop, Danny and Julie had managed to register a grand total of one worker living in a trailer with failing siding, surrounded by a yard littered with garbage.

It was a common site. The front porch of another camp was strewn with beer cans, dirty laundry, and filth. At another place, a courteous but uninterested farmworking mom spoke to Danny through a screen door with holes big enough for birds to get through. On other days I had seen much worse.

Danny and Julie decided to ditch the rest of their leads. They would go instead to a peach grower’s camp they had already picked clean of OSYs, this time to interview a farmworker for their documentary project.

The decision changed everything. For the first time they were genuinely excited and I wondered why.

I could tell this camp was different as we rolled to a stop at the end of a long gravel road, the last few pebbles crunching under our wheels. The expanse of grass surrounding the squat white building was the first I’d seen at a camp that qualified as an actual lawn. It wasn’t fancy but had clearly been mowed. And there wasn’t a spec of litter in sight.

Danny and Julie were met by a pair of men with smiles that wrapped their weather-worn faces. I couldn’t follow the rapid Spanish but the body language was clear: These people were happy to see one another.

While Danny went inside to recruit someone to interview, Julie headed to the volleyball net. Volleyball? Within moments she was punching the ball to a guy on the other side, who lost sight of it in the glare of a warm sun now falling toward the peach trees surrounding the camp. He laughed.

 I saw things I hadn’t seen at other camps: A pair of washing machines on a covered porch—they looked new. Parallel rows of clothes lines, draped with shirts and pants, rocked in unison by a warm, lazy breeze coming off the orchard. Two workers sat on their tractor, watching the orange sun now kissing the tops of the trees, enjoying the simple passage of time in a gorgeous setting.

The interview went off without a hitch and was followed by nearly an hour of friendly banter inside a screened in porch. I followed what I could of the conversations and took in what I could see: Clean tables. A swept floor. A bright clean kitchen with a professional stove—a Viking, the kind you see in restaurants.

I wonder what moved this grower to provide such decent housing, to spend what was clearly more than necessary to give these men a decent place to return to after a day of hard labor.

One factor was their immigration status. They were on H2A guest worker visas and the government requires housing to meet minimal standards from growers—standards too often ignored and unenforced.

I expect this peach grower went above and beyond H2A housing standards. Not every camp requires a Viking stove or even a volleyball net. But every farmworker is a human being with no less dignity than you or me. They all deserve a clean and well-maintained place to eat, to bath, to sleep.





The Moral Urgency of Farmworkers in the Media

Spring and summer herald the annual return of migrant workers to farms around the country, especially in North Carolina. So often, workers’ return to our home state means their resuming hard work for little pay, the constant risk of pesticide exposure, and, for their children, going to work in a dangerous environment. While workers’ situation in our economy remains dire, this spring is beginning differently in at least one respect: gradually, the media has begun to turn its attention to child labor issues and the pesticide exposure migrant farmworkers face.

CNN recounts the story of Jessica Rodriguez, who began working in tobacco fields in North Carolina at age 11. While she should have been in school, Jessica worked in the fields, encountering dehydration and green tobacco sickness, a potentially lethal illness related to tobacco exposure. Even worse, according to an alarming new Human Rights Watch (HRW) report, more than half of children in Jessica’s situation experience pesticides being applied to crops by growers as they continue to work in the fields.

Meanwhile, The Guardian picked up the story of Eddie Ramirez, who began work in the fields at age 12. Part of the tragedy of child labor in North Carolina is that children like Eddie and Jessica being forced to work is legal. Laws designed to allow children to work on family farms have become loopholes that allow underprotected migrant youth to be exposed to dangerous industrial agricultural environments. The U.S. now lags behind Brazil and India in the legal protections it offers children, according to the HRW report.

The groundswell of media attention in the days since the HRW report was released is a welcome development in the fight against child labor and injustice against migrant farmworkers. Dozens of media outlets from California to Connecticut have picked up the story of the fight for human dignity being waged in North Carolina and around the country, including an op-ed in the New York Times.  

For the tide to turn, however, and for farmworkers’ dignity to be acknowledged, we cannot be satisfied with merely reading about issues in the news. The time to act is now.

FAN is dedicated to fighting for workers’ dignity and committed to seeing injustice eradicated, but we are counting on your support. Your help is needed at this pivotal time:

  • SIGN Human Rights Watch’s petition to end child labor in tobacco farming.

  • SUPPORT FAN-member organization Toxic Free NC’s petition pertaining to proposed changes in the EPA’s Worker Protection Standard (WPS). Toxic Free’s petition calls for tightening rules concerning children being exposed to pesticides in the fields.

  • COMMENT on the EPA’s proposed WPS changes. For more information, and to see FAN’s statement on the changes, visit the FAN blog.

  • WRITE a letter to the editor or Op-Ed for your local newspaper bringing the plight of farmworkers to your paper’s attention. For resources, sample letters, and more, contact FAN.

  • WATCH FAN’s Emmy-award winning documentary HARVEST OF DIGNITY, or contact FAN to host a screening.

  • LIKE FAN on Facebook, follow us on Twitter, Pin Harvest of Dignity, and tell your friends that you stand with farmworkers this summer.



Media Release: EPA pesticide safety changes welcome, farmworker coalition says, but fall short 

MARCH 31, 2014 

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE CONTACT: John Zambenini (937)554-4583 

EPA pesticide safety changes welcome, farmworker coalition says, but fall short 

Ag Worker Protection Standard update overdue, working children still not protected 

"The new proposal falls short in key ways, such as allowing teenagers to work as pesticide applicators." --Fawn Pattison, Toxic Free NC. Photo by Peter Eversoll. 

RALEIGH — A group of North Carolina farmworker advocates praised proposed EPA changes to the Agricultural Worker Protection Standard, but said the measures represent only a partial improvement for workers’ health and safety. The North Carolina Farmworker Advocacy Network (FAN) announced Monday its support of upcoming changes designed to reduce workers’ risk of pesticide exposure. But the measures, now open for public comment, still fall short, advocates say. 

Coalition leaders say changes to the 22-year-old standard address inhumane working conditions where pesticide exposure is a significant risk, but stop short of protecting children or monitoring the long-term harm of exposure.

“For too long, the people who pick our food have been forced to put their own health and their children’s at risk, just by going to work,” Fawn Pattison, Senior Advocate at FAN member organization Toxic Free North Carolina said. “We’re pleased the EPA proposed strengthening this outdated safety standard. But the  It is not immediately clear whether the changes will sufficiently address documentation loopholes that stymied the high-profile Ag-Mart case concerning three children born in 2005 with severe birth defects. Their mothers worked in tomato fields for Ag-Mart when they were pregnant, and the birth defects were believed to be linked to pesticide exposure. The proposed new regulations do call for growers to keep records of pesticide applications, as well as more frequent training for applicators, though no record of when workers return to treated fields.

The EPA’s proposal has renewed community efforts to address unsafe working conditions. “We’re pleased that the EPA is proposing strengthening protections for youth who work in the fields,” Carol Brooke of the NC Justice Center said, “but believe that children under 18 should not be exposed to the hazards of handling pesticides.”

Nadeen Bir, Advocacy and Organizing Director, of Student Action with Farmworkers said the long overdue update must be part of a broader conversation about farmworker issues. “Enforcement of the standard is always a challenge,” Bir said. “It’s made worse by workers’ fear of retaliation if they come forward about violations.”

The estimated 1-2.4 million farmworkers in the United States often live in fear of wages being withheld or documentation being confiscated if they report violations or abuse.

“The proposed rule is positive, but it’s only one piece of the puzzle,” Bir said. The comment period ends June 17th. FAN is calling on the public to voice support for the proposal, and for stronger protections for children and youth in particular. A full copy of the proposed rule, and instructions for commenting can be found on the EPA’s website at http://www.epa.gov/oppfead1/safety/workers/proposed/index.html.

The coalition is calling for continued scrutiny of policies that affect the lives of farmworkers. Part of the challenge the WPS changes present is sifting through the details of the lengthy new policy and anticipating the needs of workers. Its ramifications are not yet completely known, advocates said. Farmworker Advocacy Network is an award-winning coalition committed to recognizing the humanity and leadership of farmworkers, upon whom our agricultural system is dependent, and bringing their concerns to the public. www.ncfan.org




Welcome to National Farmworker Awareness Week! March 24-31, 2014: Reflect, Share, Act! 


WHY is there a National Farmworker Awareness Week? FAN joins organizations and individuals across the country this week to honor farmworkers and their families, raise awareness about issues affecting them, demand safe and just working and living conditions, and call for an end to unfair treatment under the law.

HOW can you participate? We invite you to take a brief moment each day to think about the lives of farmworkers and their families who harvest our food. Every day has a different theme connected to farmworker justice, with multimedia information to learn more, and steps to take action for the related issue. Visit and ‘Like’ the National Facebook page for this special week and spread the word.

TODAY’s theme is worker unity. “In 1966, Cesar Chavez and a group of strikers set out on a 340-mile march from Delano to Sacramento to draw attention to the plight of farm workers, and during this strike the union won its first contract.” We honor the long legacy of workers organizing in the U.S. and call attention to the importance of unions in advancing worker rights—see images of these struggles in action, and learn more, in this short video

The power of farmworker organizing comes to the big screen across the country this Friday! Don’t miss the premier of the major motion picture Cesar Chavez on March 28th – organize a movie meet-up like this one in Durham, NC!



“Harvest of Dignity” won a Regional Emmy!

It has been about a month since the Harvest of Dignity won “Best Documentary/Topical” in the Midsouth Regional Emmy Awards, but we’re still celebrating. This is a huge step forward in the farmworker justice movement, one that will help bring more awareness and involvement in improving the living and working conditions of North Carolina field and poultry workers.

Harvest of Dignity was produced in 2010 with Donna Campbell of Minnow Media, Student Action with Farmworkers and the Farmworker Advocacy Network, to commemorate the 50th anniversary broadcast of Edward R. Murrow’s groundbreaking 1960 documentary, Harvest of Shame.  Murrow’s documentary revealed conditions of housing, education and pay for workers and raised awareness of farmworker injustices, and prompted the passage of new legislation to protect farmworkers. The Harvest of Dignity, through interviews with farmworkers, religious leaders, and advocates examines if and how the lives of farmworkers have changed in North Carolina in the last 50 years. The documentary uncovers housing conditions in migrant labor camps in Snow Hill and Benson, NC and details issues of pay, education, pesticide exposure and injuries. Fifty years ago most farmworkers were African American; today they are more likely to be Latino/Hispanic. Most have come to North Carolina looking for opportunity for a better life.

The Harvest of Dignity is also the same name of FAN’s advocacy and awareness raising campaign that calls for positive education, legislation, and organizing initiatives to improve living and working conditions of North Carolina field and poultry workers.  This documentary has been used as a teaching tool to involve community members in the farmworker justice movement. Harvest of Dignity is available in English and dubbed in Spanish. You can purchase a DVD here or stream the documentary online from here.

FAN is thankful for the funders, partners and individuals who made this documentary possible: The North Carolina Arts Council, The Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation, OXFAM America, Donna Campbell and Minnow Media, Student Action with Farmworkers, Toxic Free NC, NC Justice Center, and Legal Aid of North Carolina.

While we are grateful for this award, we truly feel the recognition should go to the thousands of farmworkers who harvest our food each and every day.


Regional EMMY Award for Harvest of Dignity from Minnow Media on Vimeo.




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.

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