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Farmworker advocates “disappointed” labor commissioner is unwilling to take a stand against child labor

After a recent meeting, Farmworker Advocacy Network sends a strongly-worded letter to NC Labor Commissioner Cherie Berry

RALEIGH (April 5, 2012) – For the first time, North Carolina’s labor commissioner met with farmworker advocates this week. Unfortunately, the state agency tasked with protecting workers failed to send any signal against child labor in the North Carolina fields.

In a letter delivered today to North Carolina Department of Labor Commissioner Cherie Berry, Farmworker Advocacy Network members said they were “disappointed” to hear that “the NC Department of Labor is currently unwilling to take a stand against the employment of children thirteen years of age or younger in agriculture.”

U.S. Labor Secretary Hilda Solis has issued “Hazardous Order” revisions that would protect young farmworkers from dangerous work. North Carolina advocates urged Berry and her office to back these regulations.

“We look forward to hearing whether the Department will make a public statement in support of these important protections for child farmworkers.  We hope that, in light of this change in public policy, you will revisit the Department's position on the employment of children in agriculture.” 

In this week’s meeting, Berry told advocates that she “did not think it was appropriate to take action on this issue until Congress acted on immigration reform,” the letter says.

But many of the children who work in the fields in North Carolina are U.S. citizens, so while immigration reform is an important part of the solution, so are simple but common-sense child labor regulations.

The letter also calls it “frustrating” that the Department of Labor has no proposals to change its approach to migrant housing inspections, especially in light of a recent study of North Carolina farmworker housing that showed numerous violations.

“We urge you to revisit this issue and find innovative and efficient ways to use the Department's resources to improve migrant housing for those workers whose employers ignore the law your Department is charged with enforcing,” the letter says.

The letter also takes issue with Berry’s stated philosophy of withholding support from regulations that do not pass muster with business. Farmworker advocates are “greatly troubled by the philosophy of the Department, expressed both by you and members of your staff, that you are not willing to support new regulations to protect farmworkers in North Carolina without the consent of the Department of Agriculture, the Farm Bureau, the Agribusiness Council, and the commodity groups.” Workers, not employers or business, are those meant to be the constituency of the Department of Labor, the letter says.

The letter is signed by Carol Brooke of the NC Justice Center and Melinda Wiggins of Student Action with Farmworkers.

FOR MORE INFORMATION, CONTACT: Carol Brooke, Director of the Workers’ Rights Project at the NC Justice Center, carol@ncjustice.org; (919) 856-2144; Melinda Wiggins, Student Action With Farmworkers, mwiggins@duke.edu, (919) 660-3616.

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