Commentary, News

With Thanksgiving season upon us, here’s a great event worth supporting this weekend:

Triangle Community, Farmworkers to Protest Publix, Calling on Retailer to Join White House-Backed Human Rights Program
As Publix rapidly expands throughout North Carolina, farmworkers and consumers demand an expansion of the supermarket giant’s commitment to human rights of farmworkers in their supply chain

On Sunday, November 8, at 2 pm, scores of Triangle area community members will gather with farmworkers of the internationally-recognized the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) for a protest at the Publix in Cary. They will demand that the Florida-based grocer support the human rights of farmworkers by joining the CIW’s Fair Food Program, a groundbreaking collaboration that has won the praise of human rights observers from the White House to the United Nations for its unique success in addressing decades-old farm labor abuses at the heart of the nation’s trillion-dollar food industry. Since Publix began expanding their stores into the Tar Heel State, North Carolinians have been demanding that Publix end its six-year refusal to be part of this transformative solution to decades of farmworker exploitation, most recently holding a lively picket outside of a store in Asheville this past Sunday and another action at a Charlotte Publix yesterday. This coming Sunday’s protest comes a few days after Wednesday’s free screening of the film “Food Chains” at the Raleigh Grande Theater, which focuses on the work of the CIW, exploring the exploitation of farm workers in the agriculture industry in the United States, the complicity of corporations in perpetuating human rights abuses, and the role consumers can play in working for justice.

What: Large and lively picket at Publix
When: Sunday, November 8, at 2 pm
Where: Outside of the Publix at 1020 Bradford Plaza Way, Cary
Why: Farmworkers and consumers will call on Publix to join the Fair Food Program, a social responsibility program to ensure respect for basic human rights for farmworkers in its tomato supply chain.

After decades, the CIW has fundamentally transformed the Florida tomato industry through the Fair Food Program (FFP), an historic partnership among farmworkers, Florida tomato growers, and 14 multi-billion dollar tomato retailers, such as McDonald’s and Walmart. This past summer, the Fair Food Program began to expand into tomato fields up the east coast through New Jersey, including North Carolina. Participating companies require more humane labor standards from their tomato suppliers and pay one penny more per pound to improve workers’ pay, agreeing to buy only from tomato growers that are part of the Program. The FFP is ensuring human rights protections for tens of thousands of farmworkers, including required shade and water, other critical health and safety protections, and a zero tolerance policy for slavery and sexual violence. Since 2011, nearly $20 million has been distributed to farmworkers’ paychecks through the penny-per-pound premium. The Fair Food Program was heralded in the New York Times as “the best workplace monitoring program … in the US” and “one of the great human rights success stories of our day” in the Washington Post.


Workers carrying banana peppers at Kenda Farms 2003 (PBP)Not surprisingly, it was Gene Nichol’s regular contribution to Raleigh’s News & Observer in which he shines a light on the General Assembly’s cold and shoddy decision to punish poor people by slashing the state’s already inadequate Legal Aid budget.

As is so often the case with conservative attacks on Legal Aid, this year’s budget cut was pretty clearly driven by agribusiness, which can’t abide the idea of farmworkers occasionally winning cases against growers who treat them like, well, dirt. Here’s Nichol:

“Sen. Brent Jackson of Autryville, one of the powerful appropriation chairs, led the charge to end funding. Jackson is the Senate’s only mega-farmer. Having benefited mightily from agribusiness contributions, he has quickly become their standard bearer. Jackson carries no affection for LANC. A couple of its lawyers have had the gall to win cases on behalf of poor farmworkers in Eastern North Carolina. So Jackson saw the rare opportunity, in a single stroke, to both line the pockets of rich Tar Heels and restrict the effective rights of those working in the fields. A win-win if ever there were one.

As a result, Hausen has been forced in recent weeks to lay off 48 lawyers and paralegals – from a staff of about 350. If cuts passed by the U.S. House become law later this year, he’ll have to eliminate 50 more. Legal aid lawyers carry famously high caseloads and enjoy famously low salaries. One of the most efficient anti-poverty programs in North Carolina is, as we speak, being markedly decimated.

This is hardly an auspicious time to gut legal services.

Given the explosion of poverty that has occurred here since 2008, now 23 percent of Tar Heels, over 2.2 million, qualify for legal services under federal guidelines. The marker is set at 125 percent of the poverty threshold – or about $29,000 for a family of four. Half of legal aid clients make less than $15,000 a year.”

But, of course, such numbers mean little to elected officials who’ve been ignoring similar figures for years. As Nichol puts it:

“We have also said, repeatedly, that we won’t allow important rights to be lost without providing a meaningful hearing, at a meaningful time, in a meaningful manner. But, for poor North Carolinians, when we say that, we lie.”

It’s getting to be a habit for state leaders.



pesticide sprayingOne of the ALEC bills that is making the rounds across the country is so-called “ag gag” legislation, designed to prevent animal rights groups from conducting undercover operations to film abuses of animals on factory farms and research facilities.

In North Carolina, the House has passed HB 405, the Property Protection Act. While not precisely an ag gag bill, the intent to restrict anyone from shedding light on embarrassing or illegal activity appears the same. A person who “intentionally gains access to the nonpublic areas of another’s premises” and commits an “act that substantially interferes with the ownership or possession of real property” may be liable to the property owner for $5000 per day. Also liable is any person who directs another to engage in the prohibited activities.

The primary purpose of HB 405 may be to keep animal exploitation out of the news, a move opposed by nearly three quarters of North Carolinians, according to a recent poll.  The effects, however, could be even more sweeping.  If this bill passes, will a farmworker be able to take pictures of illegal migrant housing conditions to provide to the Department of Labor? Will a tester who does not intend to accept employment be able to apply for a job to test whether illegal race discrimination is taking place? What will happen to the worker who takes a picture similar to the one posted here?


Farmworker Justice released a report last week analyzing 8 years of USDOL’s enforcement data of laws protecting farmworkers.  It should come as no surprise that the report, “U.S. Department of Labor Enforcement in Agriculture: More Must be Done to Protect Farmworkers,” found high rates of violation of both the Fair Labor Standards Act’s minimum wage requirement and basic protections afforded farmworkers under the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act. However, the report also found that USDOL has improved its enforcement efforts in recent years.

The report caught the attention of David Weill, Administrator of USDOL’s Wage and Hour Division.  In response, Weill writes:

Agricultural workers are among the most vulnerable, at-risk populations that the U.S. Department of Labor protects. They are typically unaware of their rights, or afraid to speak up. They often fall victim to wage, health and safety violations as they toil for long hours, often in harsh conditions, to put food on tables across the nation. . .

We have made progress in protecting workers, yet, challenges remain and we must face them in the most effective, efficient ways possible. Since we will never be able to investigate or to provide training to every grower directly, we will continue to deploy our resources strategically to improve compliance as broadly as possible.  We are committed to strengthen the results of every investigation. We will not play a game of whack-a-mole correcting violations on a case-by-case basis. We find the causes of the violations and address them.

You can read his full blog post here.  Farmworker Justice and Weill both agree that USDOL must continue with the trend of more enforcement in order to deter agricultural employers from violating the basic rights of their employees and to protect hard-working farmworkers from abuse.



Members of British parliament tour an NC tobacco field

How bad is the situation for farmworkers in North Carolina these days? This ridiculously bad: A member of the British parliament gave a speech yesterday in the House of Commons in which he spoke about his fact-finding mission here and likened what he found to “modern slavery.”

It’s hard to know what’s worse: that we’re rightfully being treated as some kind of third world country or that it takes someone from Great Britain to do the job being ignored by our own leaders.

This is from the good people at the Farm Labor Organizing Committee:


December 16, 2014 – In an Adjournment Debate in the House of Commons this morning on human rights abuses in UK company supply chains, Ian Lavery, MP from Wansbeck, spoke to the conditions he found on a fact finding visit to the tobacco fields of North Carolina in July of this year as a “modern slavery risk.” The debate was in support of the Modern Slavery Bill, which would investigate and monitor modern slavery risks in UK company supply chains, is presently going through Parliament.

British American Tobacco, based in London, is a major customer and largest owner of Reynolds American Inc., which contracts with North Carolina tobacco growers.

Lavery said “the working conditions that we saw were absolutely atrocious, with unbelievably long hours of manual labour in unbearable heat; squalid living conditions, which mean workers have a lower quality of life than inmates in UK prisons; and employers showing a total disregard for basic health and safety regulations … which meant that many of them develop green tobacco sickness, an affliction with symptoms including nausea, intense headaches, vomiting and insomnia.” Read More