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Labor Organizers Face Hurdles Trying to Reach Migrant Workers

Many North Carolina farms rely heavily on migrant workers for the labor-intensive tobacco harvest. (Adobe Stock)
Many North Carolina farms rely heavily on migrant workers for the labor-intensive tobacco harvest. (Adobe Stock)
November 15, 2019

RALEIGH, N.C. – Labor organizers says several North Carolina farms are blocking them from being able to speak and provide information to migrant workers.

Justin Flores is vice president of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, a union representing agricultural workers in the state. He says most of North Carolina's agriculture depends on a workforce recruited from elsewhere, and adds employers have an unusual amount of power they can wield to prevent workers from accessing information.

"We had some folks out there who were just talking to workers as they left work, just standing on the public part of the street,” says Flores. “And workers would drive out in the car and roll their window down, we'd give 'em flyer, talk to them a little bit, and they'd go on their way."

He says the employing farm called the police and accused the organizers of trespassing.

While accurate numbers are difficult to come by, the state Department of Commerce estimates there are upwards of 80,000 migrant farm workers in North Carolina, most working on tobacco and produce farms in the eastern part of the state.

Flores points to middlemen known as farm-labor contractors, who fly south to recruit workers from rural communities, mainly in Mexico. He says the contractors then monitor those workers, day in and day out.

"They are able to control the process about when they have their appointment in the U.S. consulate in Mexico for their visa,” says Flores. “Then, they're providing the transportation from Mexico into North Carolina, providing the housing, providing transportation to and from work, and to and from the store."

While farm labor contractors have been around for decades, Flores says they are increasingly becoming a major player in the state's farm industry.

"These labor contractors went from being a minuscule presence five years ago, to now, there's probably 2,000 or 3,000 workers, working for them in the state,” says Flores.

Flores says his organization regularly fields calls from farm workers around the state, who have questions about their rights or who are requesting assistance.

Nadia Ramlagan, Public News Service - NC