In a recent article in Durham’s Indy Week (“Can N.C. Farmers Mistreat Their Guest Workers with Impunity?”), author Paul Blest highlighted a lawsuit brought by seven farmworkers against their employer (State Sen. Brent Jackson of Sampson County) and used it as a starting point to discuss some of the injustices that are often visited upon workers who are imported into the U.S. under the H-2 visa program. As a Student Action with Farmworkers intern with the North Carolina Justice Center this summer, I can verify the existence of many of the problems raised in the piece and have seen firsthand the impact of wage theft and improper housing on these workers.
H-2A workers are victims of wage theft regularly. Some are not paid their contract wage, which is $10.72 per hour in 2016. Others are not paid until weeks after they have worked. Others are robbed of their hours as the following passage from Blest’s article describes:
“We began to notice that the grower and supervisor would steal our wages by punching us out for anything they could—changing fields, waiting for equipment to come, or our water breaks. … Little by little, this added up, and over the season, he stole thousands of dollars from our wages.”
Such a scenario is not uncommon among the workers I have visited on outreach this summer. And this is not a minor matter. North Carolina uses more temporary visas for agriculture workers, known as H-2A visas, than all other states except Florida. As the number of H-2A’s increase, so does the abuse they suffer.
Improper housing is also a huge problem and something that I have witnessed when visiting farmworkers. But this is nothing new. A 2012 investigation by staff of the Center for Worker Health at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center found that “migrant housing in North Carolina is plagued with violations. Researchers uncovered at least four violations of housing law in each of the 183 camps they inspected for the study.”
Unfortunately, these types of violations are hardly ever discovered because of the workers’ need to have a secure job to send money to their families in Mexico and fear of retaliation from growers if they complain. In the Jackson case, not surprisingly, only one out of the six farmworkers who filed the law suit against Jackson Farms was contacted to return to work.
The bottom line: These are the types of mistreatment that farmworkers (both H2A workers and American workers) face that are illegal under the law, but that many growers continue to get away with. Let’s hope that with more outreach to camps to increase awareness and inform people of their rights, more farmworkers will be able speak up and safely demand better their conditions in the agricultural system. For now, however, there is a long, long way to go.