Justice for Farmworkers

By Chris Liu-Beers 12-01-2010

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[Editors' Note: This month, Sojourners will examine the intersection of food, faith, and farmworker justice. We will feature posts from contributing bloggers about where our food comes from, what affect this process has on agricultural workers, and how we can respond as people of faith.]

On Thanksgiving 1960, Edward R. Murrow's "Harvest of Shame" report on the state of America's migrant workers shocked a nation. Murrow exposed the dangerous conditions and lack of dignity that characterized farm work. Describing a scene of workers being recruited to work in the fields, Murrow narrates: "This is the way the humans who harvest the food for the best-fed people in the world get hired. One farmer looked at this and said, 'We used to own our slaves; now we just rent them.'"

Fifty years after "Harvest of Shame" not much has changed. Farm work remains one of the nation's most dangerous industries. Here in North Carolina, dangerous conditions in the fields, poverty wages, and substandard housing continue to threaten workers' health and well-being. For example, workers often put in 14-hour days in bad weather -- including extreme heat and rain. In North Carolina, 7 farmworkers died of heat stroke in a recent five-year span. They were literally worked to death. And heat stroke isn't the only problem in the fields.

Some employers with 10 or fewer workers are not required to provide toilets or clean water during the workday. We know that some growers ignore the regulations altogether, putting workers at risk. For example, workers have had to drink water from ponds containing pesticides when there is no other water source.

North Carolina is rightfully famous for its tobacco production. While tobacco is a valuable crop, it poses special risks to the workers who touch the plant all day long. A quarter of tobacco workers experiences nicotine poisoning through the skin at least once in a growing season. In just one day, workers can absorb the amount of nicotine found in 36 cigarettes.

"We are working in the tobacco now. And many times we leave work feeling dizzy, because of the chemicals. It affects us a lot. In other harvests it isn't so bad, but in the tobacco it really affects us. I think it was on Monday while we were working, the boss came by spraying the pesticides in the field right next to us. And the wind carried it all over us. We felt very sick, it makes us dizzy."

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