The agricultural industry often portrays itself as self-made, pristine, and essential for feeding the world. However, hidden beneath this facade lies the truth: farmworkers play a huge, essential part of the industry’s success. It is the farmworkers who tirelessly harvest, process, and package the produce that eventually reaches our tables. Despite being the backbone of the industry, these essential workers are unfortunately not treated as such.
During my enriching summer as the ITF intern in the Farmworker Unit at Legal Aid of North Carolina, working alongside the esteemed Student Action with Farmworkers (SAF), I encountered numerous distressing stories of the appalling mistreatment faced by farmworkers. These stories range from exploitative recruitment practices and wage theft to instances of sexual assault, threats of deportation, and the denial of access to vital medical attention. It is a grim reality that is often overlooked and ignored.
The With the Farmworker Unit staff, I conducted outreach visits in various counties and some of the farmworkers that we spoke reported experiencing wage theft. Our visits involved engaging with farmworkers, providing them with essential resources, and empowering them with booklets that included a table to track their hours worked. According to the regulations governing the H-2A program, the 2023 Adverse Effect Wage Rate, the minimum wage rate that employers have to pay H-2A workers in North Carolina is $14.91 per hour. Growers and contractors using the H-2A program to fill their labor needs have to pay farmworkers at least this minimum wage per hour, even if those workers would be earning less under strictly piece-rate pay. The tables in the outreach booklets help farmworkers to record their hours worked and verify if they are getting credit for all of these hours in their weekly pay.
My involvement with SAF and the Farmworker Unit had a significant positive impact on the farmworker community. Through SAF theater performances, we provided farmworkers with much-needed moments of respite from their arduous work. Engaging in dinners and conversations allowed us to establish meaningful connections and provide a safe space for them to share their questions and concerns. Then, through Farmworker Unit visits to camps, whether in trailers, houses, or renovated schools and churches, I felt as if these visits left an indelible positive mark on the lives of these hardworking individuals because, whether they followed the Farmworker Unit Facebook page or simply engaged in conversation, they now know they have someone to turn to for information and support.
My experience in North Carolina this summer has solidified my passion for advocating on behalf of migrant workers. I am committed to utilizing the skills I have acquired here to serve other organizations in my home state of Idaho, as well as in Washington, Oregon, and Michigan. Outreach has taught me the importance of stepping out of my comfort zone, as it opens up unforeseen opportunities for personal growth and, most importantly, allows me to be of service to those who need it the most.