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Can N.C. Farmers Mistreat Their Guest Workers with Impunity?

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Dr. Thomas Arcury, director of the Center for Worker Health at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, has been researching migrant-worker conditions since 1995.

In 2010, Arcury and a Wake Forest team investigated housing at 183 labor camps in eastern North Carolina. At every camp, they found at least four violations, including but not limited to roach and rat infestations, dysfunctional plumbing, and polluted drinking water.

A year later, another Wake Forest study Arcury was involved in found that fewer than half of the workers surveyed had access to soap for handwashing, only a third received pesticide safety training, and just 15 percent had access to safety equipment.

Across the state, Arcury says, housing arrangements range from "a house trailer with five or six guys living in it to a barracks-style with a big room that could be housing for fifteen to twenty workers." But the Jackson farm's housing—set up like a summer camp for adults, with some rooms that easily fit a dozen people into bunk beds—is nicer than at most North Carolina labor camps, Flores says.

An N.C. Department of Labor representative told the INDY that the department had awarded the farm the designation of a "gold star grower" twice, in 2007 and 2012, as part of a program that "recognizes growers who provide farmworker housing that meets and exceeds all of the requirements of the Migrant Housing Act of N.C.," according to the department's website.

Still, it's not just housing problems that worry advocates. Driscoll, of Legal Aid, says wage theft is common, too.

U.S. Department of Labor statistics show that, in 2015, the Wage and Hour Division concluded 270 investigations of H-2A worker complaints and awarded more than $2.1 million to more than 2,700 workers. Twenty of those investigations were in North Carolina, where 270 workers won more than $200,000 in back wages. In addition, $94,000 was assessed in civil penalties against North Carolina growers for wage violations.

The NCGA's Hill dismisses most of these complaints as misunderstandings. "We encourage the worker to talk to the grower," he says. "The vast majority of types of complaints we get are not so much violations, but the lack of work." 

But advocates say these problems shouldn't be brushed aside. While Arcury acknowledges that workers in the H-2A program have more rights and receive better treatment than undocumented workers, he says there are insufficient labor and health regulations covering farms. He calls the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's worker protection standards "totally inadequate." In addition, he adds, most U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulations have exemptions for agriculture.

Arcury also notes that, under the Migrant Housing Act, housing inspections are only required before the housing opens and when a complaint is made.

"But then," he says, "the question becomes, will a worker will actually file a complaint?" (According to the NCDOL's 2015 annual report, the state conducted 1,714 preoccupancy occupancy inspections and 114 compliance inspections; officials issued 174 violations that fined farmers $153,526.)

The biggest impediment to addressing these issues, Arcury says, is getting people to care about those who "suffer so we can have cheap food" enough to push for changes.

"After doing this for twenty years," he says, "it's somewhat disheartening that things really haven't gotten that much better—if they've gotten better at all."

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