Thanksgiving this year comes on the 50th anniversary of Edward R. Murrow’s documentary, “Harvest of Shame,” which exposed the wretched conditions endured by American farmworkers. “Fifty years later, very little has changed,” says Fawn Patterson. “The conditions are still deplorable.”
Patterson heads the group Toxic Free North Carolina and also the coalition of groups called the Farmworker Advocacy Network (FAN). This week FAN launched the “Harvest of Dignity” campaign with the aim of improving the working and living conditions for agricultural workers in North Carolina and getting state agencies to enforce the laws that are supposed to protect farm labor.
Specifically, that means:
* Protecting field and poultry processing workers from on-the-job injuries due to exposure to toxic chemicals or, in the case of factories, unsafe speeds on the production line;
* Assuring that farm and production workers have safe, sanitary places to live;
* Getting the N.C. Department of Labor and the N.C. Department of Agriculture to enforce safety laws, make follow-up inspections and crack down on repeat offenders.
At a press conference, Andrea Reusing, chef-owner of The Lantern Restaurant in Chapel Hill, called on North Carolinians to pay attention to where their food is coming from and to the people who supply it. North Carolina employs 200,000 poultry and agricultural workers, Reusing said, and is the top or a leading producer of turkeys, chickens, sweet potatos, apples — in other words, your Thanksgiving fare.
Yet the people who pick the crops and process the poultry are often mistreated, she said. For example, farmworkers are supposed to be assured of sanitary housing in season by the farmers who employ them. But under current Department of Labor standards, the requirement that sanitary laundry facilities be provided is met if there’s a 5-gallon bucket available — at least one for every 30 workers.
No bucket? Crummy, leaky housing? Farmers may pay a nominal fine, but according to FAN, it’s little more than a routine cost of doing business, because state inspectors don’t follow up, and the shortage of inspectors virtually assures that a work site won’t be visited more than once every few years.
Organizers, in addition to Toxic Free NC, include immigrants rights groups, Legal Aid of NC, Student Action with Farmworkers (SAF) and the N.C. Council of Churches. They promise a concerted effort in the General Assembly next year.
So does Guillermina Garcia Cruz, a Mexican immigrant-farmworker and the mother of five children, two of whom are old enough to do farmwork with her. Garcia, through a translator, said she’s been in the United States for five years, traveling the fields from Florida to Georgia to North Carolina. The United States is a beautiful country, she said, and Americans are beautiful people, but we have a blind spot when it comes to farmworkers and what they endure. She’s proud to be part of the effort, she said, to get state officials to open their eyes.
Enforcement is especially weak, Garcia said, regarding farmworkers’ exposure to chemicals in the fields. Workers are often unaware of the dangers and little information is provided to make them aware. One of her children got very sick three years ago from pesticides. That’s how she came to be part of the campaign.
“We have dreams, aspirations. We work very hard,” Garcia said. “But for many people, we’re nothing. I would like you to look closer, so you touch your heart.”