Under the bill, employers could sue their employees if they report animal abuse or labor or safety violations in their workplaces. Senators rejected an amendment from Wake County Sen. Josh Stein that would have allowed workers and whistleblowers to use the fact that their employer broke the law as a defense in court.
The bill now goes to Gov. McCrory’s desk for his signature.
Meanwhile, animal rights groups and labor activists have roundly called on the Governor to veto the bill.
“North Carolina shouldn’t treat workers trying to expose criminal activity by their employers like criminals themselves, but House Bill 405 comes close to doing just that,” said MaryBe McMillan, the secretary-treasurer of North Carolina’s AFL-CIO. “It seems lawmakers are more interested in protecting unscrupulous employers than the health and safety of our workforce or the public at-large. HB 405 is as extreme as it is overboard.”
Rochelle Sparko, the policy director for the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association— a nonprofit that advocates for fair farm and food policies— says the bill will hurt many of the organization’s farmer members who have invested in animal welfare by properly training their workers and by giving their animals more space, better, more expensive food and enough clean water. She says this bill will put these farmers at an economic disadvantage.
“Our groups predicate their business on being completely transparent,” Sparko said. “This just makes it so that farms that don’t welcome that kind of transparency now can scare people out of reporting illegal or unethical activity. This bill makes it possible for farms not doing right thing, not properly caring for animals, to hide and cut corners.”
The bill passed the House in April on a 99-19 vote, with bipartisan support. Rep. Rick Glazier, D-Cumberland, defended the bill on the House floor, saying that to call it an “ag-gag” bill is a misnomer. He argued that bill is not intended to punish “the employee who stumbles on something bad” and feels compelled to report it.
“The only person here who’s liable is an employee who intentionally, totally purposefully enters a non-public area of an employer’s premises for reason other than a bona-fide intent of seeking or holding their job and then—without authorization— records images and then uses them to breach their duty of loyalty to the employer,” Glazier said.
Glazier said he is an animal lover and an environmentalist but that “at some point you have to balance that out with some honesty and trust that occurs between employer and employee, who the employer is paying.”
Animal rights group Mercy For Animals disagrees with Glazier’s assessment that the bill is not an “ag-gag” bill. The group says the Legislature bowed to pressure from corporate factory farming interests in passing the bill and that it will “create a safe haven for animal abuse and other criminal activity.” From a statement:
“Ag-gag legislation is a shameful attempt by the factory farming industry to shield animal abusers from public scrutiny and punish the brave whistleblowers who dare to speak out against cruelty to animals, corporate corruption, dangerous working conditions, environmental violations, and food safety hazards… Clearly North Carolina’s factory farmers have a lot to hide if they are willing to go to such despicable lengths to conceal their cruel and abusive practices.”
On his Facebook page yesterday, Sen. Stein said that while the bill has some good provisions, it goes too far and protects large corporations more than it does the public.
“This bill serves to intimidate public spirited employees from doing the right thing,” he wrote. “As a result, the public’s health, safety and welfare would be endangered.”