July 8, 2017


Abuse and safety risks.


By Madison Iszler


Wage theft, housing violations and sexual harassment are issues that some farmworkers face, but many never report the transgressions because they’re worried about retaliation from contractors or growers.

The Farm Labor Organizing Committee files between 500 and 800 complaints with the North Carolina Growers Association, the biggest employer of H-2A workers in the United States, every year.

Living conditions are also an issue. A 2012 study of 183 migrant worker camps in North Carolina found violations including roach, mice and rat infestations, non-working toilets and showers, polluted drinking water and lack of proper fire safety equipment.

Employers are required to register housing they plan to use for migrant farmworkers with the N.C. Department of Labor, which then inspects it before occupancy each year. But the department has no means of tracking the camps, said spokesperson Dolores Quesenberry in an email. Every year the department usually finds occupied camps that weren’t registered.

Last year, the department conducted 1,731 pre-occupancy inspections and 98 compliance inspections and issued 144 violations totaling more than $144,000 in penalties.

Agriculture is one of the most dangerous industries in the United States because workers are often operating machinery and lifting heavy loads. Seven percent of fatal injuries in North Carolina occurred in crop production in 2015, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

But some laborers fear losing their jobs if their boss finds out they’re injured. Victoriano Rodriguez, 53, who is working in North Carolina on an H-2A visa, says he has pain in his waist, back and legs, but he hides it from his grower because he fears he won’t be hired again.

“Sometimes co-workers will hurt themselves and not tell anyone that they’re hurt,” Rodriguez said.

Two years ago Rafael Ponce’s left hand got stuck in a machine that lays plastic over strawberry fields. When Ponce, 68, recalled how he screamed at the other farmworkers to make the machine stop, tears began streaming down his face. A two-inch scar on his wrist serves as a daily reminder of the accident.

One of his co-workers later fell off the machine and died. Ponce ran to get help, but it was too late. He hasn’t returned to working in the fields since then and has been doing odd jobs around Warsaw, a town in Duplin County, to make money.

“Sometimes I feel like my heart wants to leave or go out,” he said through a translator. “It’s really dangerous to be here.”