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Farmworker protection, not just memorials

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An altar in memory of a deceased farm worker - PHOTO BY SANDY SMITH-NONINI

Each lost farmworker's name was read aloud—sometimes haltingly, as English-speakers tripped over Spanish syllables—then a bell tolled, and a new candle danced in the brisk breeze behind the flower-strewn altar draped in the purple cloth of Lent.

I do research on immigrant labor. Like most North Carolinians, I did not know these men personally, so I was only half attentive, busy taking notes, when I heard the name Carmelo Fuentes read aloud. It unexpectedly touched a chord. I laid down my pen, thinking back to a UNC Hospital room where I had watched Carmelo's father stroke lotion on his adult son's limp legs, then kiss him on the head with his eyes welling over. Declared brain dead after a heat stroke, Carmelo's story became the lead in a cover story I wrote in this paper on the new campaign of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) almost exactly eight years ago.

FLOC organized the March 7 ceremony honoring those who have died in an effort to make visible the tragic and preventable human suffering that our state tolerates on farms. Church leaders, family members and farm work advocates gathered under the trees in Raleigh's Nash Park near midday holding black flags to commemorate the otherwise invisible deaths.

At least 11 workers have died in the fields since 1995, according to union research, state Department of Labor investigations and media reports. More undoubtedly went unreported. A 2005 study by UNC researchers showed that 45 percent of the 161 heat stroke deaths in the state since 1977 took place on farms, or an average of three per year. Farmworkers' deaths tend to be undercounted in Department of Labor statistics; the undocumented status of many workers adds to their invisibility.

Nine of these 11 deaths were from heat stroke, and an alarming six deaths took place since the September 2004 contract between FLOC and the Mount Olive Pickle Company, which may reflect better follow-up on cases because of more union reps across the state.

The last death was in August on a Wayne County tobacco farm after Juan Jose Soriano suffered a heat stroke. An investigation on that farm by the state Department of Labor reported that "12 migrant farmworkers were exposed to heat indices of 105-110 degrees without the opportunity to hydrate or cool down," according to material provided by FLOC. Soriano had five children, three under the age of 18.

Pablo Ordaz, 39, died of heat stroke in July 2005 on a farm where coworkers reported to state investigators that the foreman failed to provide drinking water and reprimanded workers who stopped for a break, both violations of the law.

In interviews with dozens of workers since 1998, I've heard many similar complaints. Heat stroke deaths often occur when there is a delay between the onset of symptoms and calls for emergency medical aid. Workers often lack access to phones and depend on a foreman or crew leader to call for help. Delayed treatment was blamed in the Fuentes case mentioned above.

Families of those who die or become disabled often suffer financial hardships because most lack workers' compensation. North Carolina is the largest state with farmworkers that does not guarantee coverage.

After the ceremony, FLOC President Baldimar Velasquez contrasted the public silence over farmworkers' deaths with the recent national outpouring of grief that accompanied the deaths of six Bluffton University baseball players in a Georgia bus accident earlier this month. "The tears of families of workers lost in the fields are no less than those of the families of these athletes," he said.

FLOC, which represents more than 8,000 legal guest workers, plans a new campaign in the 2007 season focused on undocumented workers, who make up the majority of the state's farmworkers.

Denise Long, of the North Carolina Council of Churches, evoked the spirit of Lent in her comments at the ceremony. She spoke of the need to "make visible the role of state and religious leaders" on this issue, and then asked forgiveness for all of us "for being complicit with an agricultural system in need of reform."

Events are planned around the Triangle to mark National Farmworker Awareness Week, March 25-31. Ariel Dorfman speaks and presents his video Speak Truth to Power: Voices from Beyond the Dark, plus live musical and dance performances, Tuesday, March 27, 7-9 p.m., Richard White Auditorium, Duke East Campus; Kent State Community Documentarians Gary Harwood and David Hassler discuss Growing Season: The Life of a Migrant Community, about their work photographing and collecting first-person narratives near Hartville, Ohio, Thursday, March 29, 7-9 p.m., LGBT Center, 2 West Union Building, Duke University, and Friday, March 30, noon, Carmichael Ballroom, UNC-CH. For more info and other events, visit www.saf-unite.org.

Sandy Smith-Nonini is a research assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology at UNC-Chapel Hill.

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