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Migrant Workers in North Carolina

The term "migrant worker" has different meanings in different countries. In the United States, this term is generally referred to as documented or un-documented (illegal) immigrants who work for little pay in the agricultural field. The term comes with an overall negative connotation as these types of workers toil in very poor (often harmful) conditions. Migrant workers in the United States are commonly paid extremely low wages without any guaranteed benefits like overtime pay, healthcare, or the oversight of safety regulations in the workplace. They often live in migrant camps that are provided by the labor contractors or growers. These camps tend to not be well regulated and are often unsanitary, dirty, and would be considered hazardous to live in by most American standards. Bad living and working conditions make these workers very susceptible to sickness, pesticide exposure, and poisoning (from the chemicals used for fertilizer and weed killer on farms).

North Carolina is the fifth most populous farmworker state in the United States, behind California, Texas, Washington, and Florida. It is no secret that the majority of farmworkers are, indeed, migrant workers, and that the majority of migrant workers are of Latino/Hispanic/Chicano descent. (For more discussion on the use of these terms, see the Diversity’s Committee article on Latino/Hispanic Heritage.) Some experts suggest that there are more than 100,000 migrant and seasonal farmworkers working in North Carolina throughout the year. Of these, approximately 60,000 are Latinos. In 2002, the North Carolina Employment Security Commission (ESC) counted 108,900 migrant, seasonal, year-round and H-2A workers working in North Carolina fields. Taking into account the limitations of these estimates, and including dependents, North Carolina's farmworker population is estimated to be over 200,000.

The work of Latinos helps drive the state's economy. North Carolina's tobacco, greenhouse and nursery, vegetable, and fruit industries rely heavily on the labor of farmworkers, producing more than $2.2 billion in sales. Although Latinos are more likely to be employed [in agriculture] than other racial or ethnic groups, they are also the most likely to live in poverty.

Migrant Worker

Photo Courtesy of Ohio River Lifestyle

“The US boasts of having the cheapest food supply in the world available to its consumers. While this might be true on the surface, it comes at a cost. This cost can be measured in the poverty and misery that result from a system that legally allows exploitation of those who produce this food. This cost often falls on the shoulders of farm workers who labor in the fields to provide the high quality, cheap foods we enjoy and boast about. The fact is that farm workers living in poverty subsidize food prices. It is an irony that those who labor to put food on our tables cannot themselves afford to buy that food, cheap as it is trumpeted to be.”

In North Carolina:

  • Of the growers that provided housing that submitted to water testing, 44% had contaminated water. (Univ. of NC, Reported by: Smith-Nonini)
  • One wash tub per 30 workers meets the state's requirements.
  • In 1986, of farm workers tested, 86% had intestinal parasites - a reflection of poor sanitation and contaminated water (Univ. of NC reported by: Smith-Nonini)
  • Despite a legal requirement, a survey found that only 4% of farm workers had access to drinking water, toilets, and hand washing facilities in the fields. (Human Rights Watch)
  • There are 4 federally funded clinics that serve farm workers where patients pay on a sliding scale according to income. However, more than 60% of the migrant farm worker population live in counties outside of the service area of a migrant health center. (NC Farmworker Health Alliance March 1996)
  • The state provides limited funds for migrant health services. These funds provide reimbursements for doctors, dentists, clinics, and pharmacies for care to farm workers and their dependents who have been employed in the state within the past 24 months. (NC Farmworker Health Alliance March 1996.)"

There are many organizations that fight and advocate for the rights of migrant workers. Several in North Carolina and the United States include:


North Carolina Latinos
“Migrant Worker”
Migrant Farm Worker Conditions

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