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leaders call for 'death-free' season
for North Carolina farmworkers
N.C., March 7, 2007 – Each year in North Carolina's fields, tragedies
occur. Farmworkers die from lack of water in the extreme heat in the
fields and babies are born with severe birth defects to mothers who are
illegally sprayed with pesticides.
In the last two harvest seasons alone, at least six farmworkers have died of heat-related illnesses; in some cases, workers were discouraged and/or reprimanded for taking breaks and drinking water while working in temperatures upwards of 100 degrees F.
"Many faithful Americans thank God each day for their food by saying grace before their meals," said the Rev. Bob Edgar, general secretary of the National Council of Churches USA. "I wonder how many Americans know of the price farmworkers pay to get that food to our supermarkets. It's time for action," Edgar said.
Religious leaders are lending the moral voice of the Church to decry such instances and to help support efforts to improve conditions in the fields.
A Wednesday event at a downtown park drew about 200 participants. Local clergy from various denominations lighted candles to remember farmworkers who have died or suffered severely in the fields. Other speakers included Sergio Sanchez, a former farmworker, Rev. Nelson Johnson of Faith Community Church, Greensboro, and Rev. Baldemar Velasquez, of Rapha Ministries International and President of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC).
The event is organized by the National Farm Worker Ministry (NFWM), an interfaith organization dedicated to mobilizing the religious community to support farmworkers organizing for justice, empowerment and equality. NFWM will be inviting church and community groups to participate in summer delegations into the fields and farm labor camps to learn about farmworker conditions and realities from the workers themselves.
NFWM is an interfaith organization that supports farm workers as they organize for empowerment, justice, and equality. Grounded in faith, NFWM works side by side with farm workers throughout the country, organizing vigils, picketing, coordinating boycotts and educating constituents.
The NCC is the ecumenical voice of America's Orthodox, Protestant, Anglican, historic African American and traditional peace churches. These 35 communions have 45 million faithful members in 100,000 congregations in all 50 states.
Photos by: Lori Fernald Khamala, National Farm Worker Ministry (NC).
NFWM contact: Lori Khamala, 919-489-4485, 919-491-0039,
Some of the farmworkers who died and suffered tragedies on-the-job in North Carolina in recent years, according to the NFWM and FLOC:
Many people are by now familiar with the tragic stories of Raymundo Hernandez (who had, in July 1995, exhibited signs of heat stroke or pesticide poisoning before disappearing from the tobacco fields where he had worked; several months later, his skull was found under a pecan tree), Carmelo Fuentes (who, in August 1998 was picking tomatoes when he suffered from heat stroke which caused severe brain damage so that even years later he is still "brain dead"), and Urbano Ramirez (who, in July 2001 exhibited signs of heat stroke or pesticide poisoning while working in the fields, was not treated, and his remains were found weeks later). These tragedies continue each year in North Carolina's fields. Here are a few more recent examples:
Juan Jose Soriano died of heat stroke while harvesting tobacco in Wayne County on August 1, 2006. The NC Department of Labor (NCDOL) investigation found that "the employer did not furnish to each of his employees conditions of employment and a place of employment free from recognized hazards that were causing or likely to cause death or serious physical harm to employees, in that employees were exposed to heat-related hazards without adequate provisions to protect them." The investigation also found that "12 migrant farmworkers were exposed to heat indices of 105-110 degrees without the opportunity to adequately hydrate or cool down" and that subsequently one worker died of hyperthermia. The grower has contested the findings and the proposed penalty of $2100. The Workers' Compensation claim is currently denied by the grower's insurance carrier. At the time of death, Juan Jose Soriano had 5 children, 3 under the age of 18.
Samuel Burnette, 62, native of Jamaica, died of heat stroke on August 4, 2006 while working in Harnett County.
Rito Meza Castillo, age 59, worked in Harnett County and died of heat stroke on July 18, 2005, just two weeks after arriving in North Carolina. At the time of death Rito Meza-Castillo had 8 children all over the age of 18. His widow lives with and is being supported by her children. For close to a year after Rito's death, Rito’s widow received checks of around $50 every week from the insurance company, which argued that this was two-thirds of Rito's weekly salary. The case was settled for $75,000 awaiting approval from the North Carolina Industrial Commission.
Pablo Ordaz, age 39, was working in Person County when he died of heat stroke on or around July 22, 2005. His body was found two days after he disappeared. According to Pablo's five co-workers, he died due to the employer's negligence and failure to provide medical attention to Pablo. An investigation by the N.C. Department of Labor found the grower: did not provide adequate drinking water to employees, and specifically that he discouraged and reprimanded workers for stopping and drinking water. One former co-worker has reported that he was reprimanded for drinking water shortly before Pablo's death. At the time of death, Pablo Ordaz had 2 children, both under the age of 18 and his wife was pregnant, the baby was born in October of 2005 and then died in December 2005. His widow is currently working and providing for the youngest of the surviving children. The older son is now over the age of 18 and not living at home. Pablo's widow Ofelia Contreras, who now volunteers with FLOC in her village in Mexico, made the following statement at a worker meeting in February, 2006: "Now that you have a union you have more support. Take advantage of this support so that it will never happen again, that which unfortunately happened to my husband," widow of Pablo Ordaz.
Richard Edward Liddle, age 37, was a working in farm labor on a Robseon County melon farm when he died of "hyperthermia"--or heat stroke--on July 27, 2005.
Mario Meneses Jaen died towards the end of the season in 2005 in Johnston County. Mario Meneses Jael left his wife, one daughter in "secundaria," or middle school, and one son in "primaria," or elementary school. Their extended family has been helping them survive, since Mario's death, in N.C. His widow works when she can find work, but they are struggling. Mario's worker's compensation claim is still pending. His cousin, Jose Ventura, comments: "it's difficult, when someone goes to Carolina and comes home in a box."
Carlitos Candelario Herrera, Jesus Navarrete and Violeta Rueda Meza: In late 2004 and early 2005, three babies with severe birth defects were born to women employed by tomato producer AgMart. The women had worked both in North Carolina and in Florida and were illegally sprayed with pesticides by AgMart operators. Carlitos was born on December 17, 2004 without any arms or legs. Jesus was born on February 4, 2005 with an underdeveloped jaw and tongue that falls back into the throat. Violeta was born on February 6, 2005 with a missing ear and no visible sex organs. She died three days after birth.
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