Each year, upwards of 150,000 farmworkers labor in North Carolina – let’s get to know them…
In Eastern North Carolina there are many large tobacco farms, and more farms expanding their production of non-tobacco crops such as sweet potatoes, cucumbers, and watermelon. These farms run almost entirely on the labor of farmworkers.
Some surprising farmworker facts:
- Farmworkers get paid approximately 1 penny per pound of sweet potatoes picked, and can pick between 7000 to 10,000 pounds per day.
- Each farmworker in North Carolina on average contributes around $12,000 towards the state economy.
- Children as young as 6 work in North Carolina fields.
- Farmworker youth have the highest high school drop out rate in the nation.
- Tuberculosis infection is considerably higher among farmworkers than among the general public.
Farmworkers are the backbone of North Carolina’s $70 billion agricultural industry, the fourth largest in the United States after California, Florida and Texas. North Carolina is the nation’s leader in sweet potato production, second in Christmas tree production and third nationally in strawberry production.
An individual farmworker earns around $11,000 annually; a family earns approximately $16,000. In North Carolina a worker is paid between 35 and 45 cents for picking a 35 pound bucket of sweet potatoes; 200-300 buckets need to be filled and hauled daily to make ends meet.
In times of intense planting or harvesting, work is readily available. However, there are periods of several days to several weeks throughout the season when farmworkers are inactive due to lack of work, bad weather, failed crops or unfair crewleaders.
Unsafe Living and Working Conditions
Low wages and minimal labor organization make farmworkers one of the state’s most economically disadvantaged and unprotected group of laborers, especially considering that farm work is the second most dangerous occupation in the United States. Farmworkers are also more susceptible to tuberculosis, heat stress, skin disorders, parasitic infections and pesticide related illnesses due to poor working and living conditions.
Ironically, many farmworkers suffer from malnutrition and food scarcity issues brought on by rural isolation and lack of income and transportation. It is difficult for them to receive public assistance or even the benefits of local food banks.
Often, farmworkers are subjected to the indignities of unfair working situations and substandard living conditions. Many live in fear of retribution if they raise complaints or want to flee abusive situations. Unscrupulous crew leaders employ violent gangs to control and intimidate workers.
Currently, there are hundreds of thousands of children working in the fields in the United States according to a 2010 study by Human Rights Watch. It’s common for children of farmworkers, sometimes as young as 6, to work alongside their parents in order to contribute to the family income, exposing them to physical harm. These same kids suffer in school from the multiple moves the family must make in search of field work, or days missed in order to work.
There are many unaccompanied minors who work in the fields. In many cases they have been separated from their parents because of deportations, unstable domestic situations, human trafficking or other circumstances beyond their control. These youth are especially exposed to sexual abuse and exploitation, labor abuse, gangs and dropping out.
Much of this information was derived from resources put together by our friends at the NC Council of Churches. Below is a link their page where you can access information sheets and even download them in PDF form.
A 2010 Human Rights Watch Report on sexual harassment of farmworkers can be found here: http://www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/reports/crd0510_brochure_low_1.pdf
The National Center for Farmworker Health has some great information about child labor in agriculture in the United States here: