Non-Profits Highlight Working Conditions Of North Carolina's Farmworkers

Mar 16, 2020

Organizations supporting migrant farmworkers in North Carolina are raising awareness about working conditions for the thousands who travel to the state to harvest seasonal crops, like strawberries and tobacco. 

National Farmworker Awareness Week isn’t new. The effort was started by the United Farmworkers in California, more than two decades ago. 

But in recent years the campaign has grown a louder presence here in North Carolina. Bianca Olivares is an organizer with Durham-based nonprofit Student Action With Farmworkers. Olivares says there are several reasons why -- social media, for one, and also...

“As more Latinx students go through college, I think more are involved in awareness weeks and different issues that affect the Latinx community,” Olivares said.

That’s part of Olivares’ own story. Her father was a farmworker when he first came to the US. Her mother worked at a denim factory before becoming a Spanish teacher, then a stay at home mom.

Olivares says working conditions for migrant farmworkers haven’t improved much. Farmworkers were first excluded from the Fair Labor Standards Act when it passed in 1938. While some exclusions have been remedied, others still remain.

For instance, agricultural employers aren’t required to pay farm workers overtime. They’re also excluded from child protection rules -- which means kids as young as 12 are permitted to work in the fields. 

Olivares says for North Carolina’s agricultural system to be more just, consumers need to care. 

“We’re hoping that if more people just know that this is even happening, more action I’m sure will happen later on to protect farmworker conditions,” Olivares said. “They should get treated fairly and paid fairly.”

The U.S. Department of Labor reports the average total income of farm workers is between $15,000-$18,000, making it among the lowest paying jobs in the country. Workers are often paid based on what’s called “piece rate” -- how many bushels or pounds of produce they gather on a given day. 

It’s also strenuous, sometimes, dangerous work. That’s why organizations across the state, including Western North Carolina, are collecting items like clothing and sunglasses to reduce exposure to pesticides and sun.

National Farmworker Awareness Week begins March 25. 

Cullowhee-based non-profit Vecinos is collecting hats, gloves, and bandanas to give to farmworkers. For more information, contact Jessica Rodriguez jrodriguez@vecinosinc.org.