MEDIA RELEASE: NC Dept. of Labor Neglects to Enforce Laws that Protect Farmworker Health and Safety

MEDIA RELEASE: NC Dept. of Labor Neglects to Enforce Laws that Protect Farmworker Health and Safety

RALEIGH (Oct. 12, 2011) – Legal Aid of North Carolina's Farmworker Unit has filed a CASPA (Complaint Against State Program Administration) with the US Department of Labor (USDOL) due to the fact that the North Carolina Department of Labor (NCDOL) is failing to ensure safe working and housing conditions for farmworkers in North Carolina. The Agricultural Safety and Health Bureau of the NCDOL is responsible for inspecting farmworker housing prior to occupancy, investigating complaints when housing is substandard, and following up on any OSHA violations which include field sanitation and health and safety in agriculture. NCDOL is also responsible for inspecting poultry industry worksites.

Farmworker advocates report that NC Labor Commissioner Cherie Berry has repeatedly ignored concerns raised by them over the years about substandard migrant farmworker housing and working conditions. Many migrant housing units are overcrowded, in disrepair and have unsanitary cooking and washing facilities. Fields where farmworkers risk exposure to pesticides and extreme temperatures harvesting crops may lack bathrooms and safe water for drinking and hand washing. “Since the farmers aren’t getting any complaints,” says a 19-year old Triangle-area farmworker, “they’re going to keep on going and working like they regularly do, without any water, port-o-john, drinking water, [or even] water to wash your hands."

Despite numerous housing and field safety violations, federal and state audits, as well as independent research, have determined that NCDOL simply fails to enforce the law. For example, NCDOL is cited for being inconsistent in the way it issues penalties, classifies violations incorrectly, and routinely reduces and/or negotiates fines downwards, even in cases where NCDOL found a high probability of serious injury. NCDOL’s own internal audit determined that it does not always follow the proper procedure for classifying violations and calculating penalties. Even when employers were aware of the violation and took no action, the violations were still not classified as “willful,” which means that the employer knew the law and violated it anyway.

Rob Segovia Welch, former NCDOL inspector reports that, “For over four years I conducted and accompanied co-inspectors on compliance inspections for NCDOL and I can say that 99.9% of the monetary penalties attached to health/safety violations are dramatically reduced by both the mandatory set penalty calculator devised by USDOL and by outright bargaining with the employer.”

Many agricultural employers abide by the law. But in 2009, only 55 migrant camps were inspected after workers arrived, when violations are more likely to be evident, out of more than 1200 registered camps and over 4000 total migrant camps in North Carolina in any given season. NCDOL is failing farmworkers and their children as well as honest employers who work hard to provide legal, safe working conditions. Poor migrant housing and working conditions can lead to acute and long-term illnesses and are an affront to human dignity.

Mary Lee Hall, Managing Attorney of the Farmworker Unit of Legal Aid of NC, 919.856.2180, (CASPA complaint information). Bart Evans, Coordinator, Farmworker Advocacy Network, 919.660.0704, (information on research surrounding farmworker living and working conditions in North Carolina)