RALEIGH, N.C. - Fed up with years of terrible conditions in North Carolina fields, and a decade of neglect by that state's pro-business labor department, a group of farmworkers there took their case to the federal government.
And the U.S. Labor Department, which in August cited tobacco growers who broke minimum wage laws in three western North Carolina counties, is preparing to look into the wider issue.
The problem, according to the farmworkers and their lawyers - the state's legal aid society - is twofold: Carolina farmers perpetrate lousy working conditions in the state's fields, and the state Labor Department looks the other way.
Workers and their lawyers told the federal DOL that farmworkers are routinely put up in substandard temporary camps, that cooking and bathroom conditions are unsanitary, and that the state, under 10-year GOP labor commissioner Cherie Berry, has done nothing about it. Fines? Jail sentences? Forget it.
Conditions in the fields are so bad that the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, an AFL-CIO member union, and the international non-profit food organization Oxfam teamed up in Aug. 2010 to expose working conditions on Tar Heel state farms, though this year's complaint to the feds didn't cite that paper.
Berry's response, in an emailed reply when the complaint was filed in mid-October 2011: "Employers in North Carolina do not need to be shamed but rather assisted in their efforts to provide a safe and healthful place of employment."
FLOC, which recently organized cucumber pickers in North Carolina -- those whose cucumbers become Mt. Olive pickles -- knows about the complaint but says bottom-up organizing is their preferred method of fighting for farmworker rights. FLOC represents 6,000 Carolina farmworkers. Legal action, says FLOC's Briana Connors, runs up against the entrenched pro-grower attitudes in the state.
But bottom-up doesn't always succeed. The National Labor Relations Board reported maintenance and production workers at two RJ Reynolds tobacco plants voted 556-686 against joint representation by the Machinists and the Bakery Workers.
"Even if North Carolina DOL could be more effective in its enforcement, it will not solve the widespread violations that we see in the fields and labor camps," she said. "These violations continue to exist because of the structured economic inequities imposed on the players at the bottom of the supply chain by large agricultural corporations like Reynolds America," the big tobacco producer.
"The real issue is how corporations like Reynolds can restructure their record profits every year so that growers are able to provide better conditions, fair pay, and avoid the violations," Connors added.
The FLOC-Oxfam report last year, State of Fear, exposed "unjust and inhumane" working conditions in Carolina tobacco fields, including:
* Workers reported employer-provided housing lacked heat, roofs leaked, toilets and showers didn't work, there was no ventilation, the mattresses -- if there were any - were worn out, cooking facilities were inadequate, and there were rodents everywhere.
* Workers spend hours in the sun exposed to toxic chemicals and nicotine. Many absorb nicotine through their skin and suffer from nicotine poisoning. One-third of the workers interviewed at 100 work camps reported pesticide related illnesses, which could have been prevented through protective clothing; growers didn't provide it.
* Workers are denied basic rights, including the right to organize.
* The workers, many of them migrant laborers, undocumented, or both, are nonetheless "desperate to provide for their families," and work despite the conditions.
They also have "a strong sense of fear of arrest and deportation." Undocumented workers can't repay the "coyotes" who smuggled them into the U.S., and fear "crew leaders" who could retaliate against workers who get sick, don't work fast enough, or even take time to go to the bathroom.
* Growers and other middlemen in the tobacco supply chain comply in exploiting workers. The big companies on top, such as Reynolds -- who pay the growers and others - do nothing about the situation.
* One in four farm workers reported earning less than federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. The minimum wage violations brought the federal DOL's Wage and Hour Division into farms in Buncombe, Henderson, and Haywood Counties on Aug. 18. It found that during last year's tomato harvest, every farm and labor contractor broke the minimum wage law and other laws.
"Violations found included failures to pay the minimum wage for all hours worked, failure to disclose written employment conditions and wage statements to workers, failure to ensure that workers had safe housing, failure to obtain proper vehicle insurance, and failure to ensure that drivers possessed valid licenses."