Agriculture workers search for enhanced legal protection
As the holiday season nears, as many as 7,000 Christmas tree farmworkers across the state are gearing up for the busiest time of the year.
North Carolina ranks second in U.S. production of Christmas trees, a crop that brings in more than $100 million in sales each year.
About 85 percent of crops must be gathered by hand — but despite this heavy reliance on farmworkers, the group is rarely granted legal protections.
The $71.6 billion agribusiness industry, which includes farming and the processing, wholesaling and retailing of farm products, contributed about 17 percent to the state’s income, according to research from Michael Walden, an economics professor at N.C. State University.
Agriculture and agribusiness are North Carolina’s No. 1 industry and account for 17 percent of the state’s employees.
It’s become clear the farmworkers the state relies on so heavily need an ally, said Chris Liu-Beers, a program associate at the N.C. Council of Churches, a group that advocates for farmworker rights.
“What’s aggravating is that the situation is not changing very fast,” he said. “We still have a lot of work to do to get any real serious changes.”
And agricultural companies are doing more to protect their farmworkers. Mt. Olive Pickle Company doesn’t directly employ any farmworkers, but it requires its growers to sign compliance statements to emphasize the company’s safety standards, said Lynn Williams, a spokeswoman for the company.
“We work very hard to have a safe workplace in our factories, so we want to reinforce that ideal with our growers,” Williams said.
In North Carolina, a child younger than 12 years old can work on a farm where employees are exempt from the federal minimum wage provisions with a parent’s permission, according to the state’s Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.
Clermont Ripley, an attorney with the N.C. Justice Center, pushes state lawmakers to increase the working age to protect children in the fields.
Generally, the federally mandated minimum wage rate must be paid to all employees. But under the Fair Labor Standards Act, agricultural employers are exempt from paying a child laborer minimum wage if the child is paid a fixed rate for each unit produced.
“Children as young as 10 can work in farm work,” Ripley said. “That hasn’t changed since the 1930s … but the farm work has. It’s become much more industrial.”
When Miranda Albo started her job at a chicken processing plant in Morganton, the plant processed about 25 chickens per minute.
“Every year they raise our salary 25 cents, and they increase the velocity of the belt,” Albo said. “I’ve been doing this for eight years and the velocity of the belt is now 45 chickens per minute.”
Ripley said she wants to increase the working age to 14, because jobs in agriculture are almost always hazardous, especially as new machines and technology are added into the mix every year.
Bobby Ammons, a farmworker at Norton Creek Farms in Macon County, was loading produce from a cooler into a semi-truck with another farmworker when he was overcome by carbon monoxide poisoning on Aug. 2. He was found slumped over the steering wheel of a forklift and later died.
This month, the labor department fined Norton Creek Farms $8,400 for Ammons’ death and for failing to educate workers about carbon monoxide, according to the citation.
“Fines are issued to penalize the offending employer but also to get the attention of other employers with similar work environments,” said spokesman Neal O’Briant.
Norton Creek Farms has until Wednesday to resolve the complaints or contest the violations.
Protecting farmworkers like Ammons is why Nadeen Bir-Zaslow, the advocacy and organizing director at Student Action with Farmworkers, does her job.
“This is about dignity and respect,” she said. “We eat the food.”
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