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Farmworkers group wants probe of NC labor dep’t

Lawyers for migrant farm workers say the state Department of Labor isn’t doing its job when it comes to keeping farm workers safe in the fields.

In a complaint filed with the federal labor department, lawyers with Legal Aid of North Carolina’s farmworker unit said the state agency systematically downplays workplace safety violations in migrant work camps, reduces fines placed on businesses, and fails to inspect most of the migrant work camps where agriculture workers toil in the fields and live.

The legal organization, which provides legal representation to the impoverished in North Carolina, made an announcement about the complaint today, but filed it with federal officials on Sept. 30.

The complaint asks federal officials to intervene in North Carolina, where the state department has been headed since 2001 by elected Labor Commissioner Cherie Berry, a Republican who runs on pro-business campaign platforms.

Berry has ignored complaints from farmworker advocates about housing conditions in migrant camps, as well as safety violations for years, according to the complaint.

“The N.C. Department of Labor Occupational Health and Safety Division (OSH) has failed to provide protections to migrant and seasonal farmworkers , including poultry processing workers,” wrote MaryLee Hall, the director of Legal Aid’s farmworker unit. “We request that your agency investigate this complaint and facilitate corrective action by OSHANC.”

Berry’s office did not immediately return phone calls seeking comment. (See update below.)

Federal labor officials have already found problems in the way North Carolina handles workplace safety issues in the agriculture industries. A 2010 report by the federal labor agency found that North Carolina inspectors frequently classified serious workplace safety violations as non-serious, and allowed business to drastically reduce their fines despite significant safety violations.

The group estimates that North Carolina employs 58,000 farmworkers, many of whom live in the 4,000 migrant camps provided by the growers and farmers in the state. Advocates think only a portion of those migrant work camps, about 1,200, are properly registered with the state and that the non-registered camp are rarely, if ever, visited by state labor inspectors.

In 2009, inspectors only visited 55 migrant camps once workers arrived, according to Legal Aid of North Carolina.

More information about the complaint is available from the N.C. Farmworker Advocacy Network (www.ncfan.org).

UPDATE: Dolores Quesenberry, spokeswoman for the state labor department, said the agency had no comment other than to “wait and see what Washington has to say.”

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