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Farmworker Advocacy Network's battle for dignity

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There is a bright orange mural that members of the Farmworker Advocacy Network carry around. It depicts field hands laboring at their grueling work. In the lower left corner, dark-skinned arms, chained at the wrist, reach upward.

Nadeen Bir-Zaslow, a member of the group that handles communications for the North Carolina activists, says, "We have a legacy in this country of people not being paid for their work or being treated as less than human. We're still working on that."

They have their work cut out for them. North Carolina is considered among the most unfriendly states for workers in the United States. Farm and poultry laborers might be the most unappreciated and vulnerable.

The Farmworker Advocacy Network, based in Durham, is a coalition of 19 groups, from Bir-Zaslow's Student Action With Farmworkers (SAF) to Legal Aid of N.C., the N.C. Farmworkers' Project, the N.C. Justice Center's Immigrants Legal Assistance Project and many more.

"The reality is we don't have enough resources," says Melinda Wiggins, SAF's executive director and a network member. "But when we work together, we can get more done. We can be more effective about strategizing."

Members credit Wiggins with uniting these organizations in 2003. It was an unprecedented effort—at least in North Carolina—to educate the public and advocate for farmworkers.

Still, the group's successes have been piecemeal. It helped pass a 2007 migrant housing bill requiring mattresses to be provided in company-owned worker housing. But its work became much more difficult since the Republican takeover of the Legislature. The chief opponent? Powerful agricultural business interests. "There is a very well-resourced opposition," Wiggins says. "And they all have lobbyists. Whenever we go to Raleigh, we're outnumbered."

Among the most pivotal issues for North Carolina farmworkers is the fact that state labor laws have sat largely untouched for the past 80 years. Farmworkers do not enjoy the same protections as other North Carolina laborers. For instance, they may be fired simply for joining a labor union. Migrant camps can be found in the shadows of fields covered in harmful pesticides. Immigrant children, as young as 13, sometimes work the fields alongside their parents.

"Often, they're afraid," says Bir-Zaslow. "They don't know who to trust."

Immigration plays a key role in denying farm-worker protections. Most of North Carolina's fieldworkers are of Latino descent.

Yazmin Garcia Rico, an SAF organizer and undocumented resident from Burlington, says 2012's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program—a federal initiative granting work permits to some undocumented migrants who arrived in the country as children—was a small step forward.

"It's not really a fix," she adds. "It's a temporary fix."

But there's much more to do, members say. FAN's activities include nighttime visits to farms to speak with workers and representing their concerns before legislative hearings. Mostly, they try to educate a public that knows little about farmworkers.

"People walk up to me and say, 'Where do I buy food that was produced under good labor conditions?'" Wiggins says. "The answer is: You cannot."

Wiggins wants people to buy local, buy organic and hold agribusiness accountable. That's the path to real change, she says. "It could happen if there is the political will."

This article appeared in print with the headline "The Long Fight."

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