Report On The Mt. Olive Pickle Boycott By The Farm Labor Organizing Committee
Migrant Farm Worker Conditions
In North Carolina And In the United States


The United States boasts of having the cheapest food supply in the world available to its consumers. While this might be true on the surface, it comes at a cost. This cost can be measured in the poverty and misery that result from a system that legally allows exploitation of those who produce this food. This cost often falls on the shoulders of farm workers who labor in the fields to provide the high quality, cheap foods we enjoy and boast about. The fact is that farm workers living in poverty subsidize food prices. It is an irony that those who labor to put food on our tables cannot themselves afford to buy that food, cheap as it is trumpeted to be. 

 The 1960 CBS documentary “Harvest of Shame” exposed to the Nation and the world, the deplorable and often inhumane conditions under which agricultural migrant workers labored to bring food to American tables. The years immediately following the exposure of the practices of exploitation saw improvements in the living and working conditions of migrant farm workers, largely through the efforts of the United Farm Workers of America, a California based labor union representing the interests of farm workers. But by most accounts, the gains of the past decades have been lost and conditions of these workers have deteriorated, hidden from public view in the fields, orchards and labor camps of the rural landscape. 

Over the past twenty years the wages of the more than two million farm workers in the US have failed to keep pace with inflation, making it difficult and often impossible to afford the basic necessities of housing, food, health care and education for their children. Agricultural economists and industry surveys found that wages have fallen by as much as twenty per cent in the past two decades, after adjusting for inflation, while a USDA survey estimated a seven per cent decline for the same period  (New York Times, March 31, 1997.) Industry supporters argue that while it is true that wages of farm workers have fallen, the rate of decline is less than it is in the non-farm sector. However, this argument is of little comfort when one considers that the wages of farm workers have been about half that of non-farm workers.  In addition to this inequality, farm workers do not normally receive such benefits as health insurance, pension plans and paid vacation or even overtime pay for working more than eight hours per day.  

One important reason for the decline in wages and other living conditions is the large surplus of labor in the farm sector. Other factors include the decline in the membership of the UFW and the rapid rise in the use of labor contractors by growers. With the huge surplus of labor, the UFW found it hard to be effective especially in states with right to work laws. After a decline in membership in recent years, enrollment in the union is again on the increase. Despite the immigration laws, there is a continuous flow of immigrants, both documented and undocumented, into this sector resulting in a large labor surplus that places a downward pressure on wages. Farm labor advocates charge that despite public statements to the contrary, national and local political leaders are reluctant to stem the flow of migrants because to do so would place an upward pressure on wages. The 1986 immigration legislation has not slowed the flow of immigrants as intended, and no new legislation has been initiated.  Instead of hiring farm workers directly, many growers are now using farm labor contractors. The labor contractors contract with the growers and find and hire the labor to do the specified work. This relieves the grower of the responsibility of hiring and paying individual workers, of determining immigration status and of withholding and paying statutory deductions to the government. However, contractors usually take twenty percent of the workers wages as commission and exert a great deal of influence and control over the workers they hire.

Immigrant farm workers do back breaking manual labor that Americans are reluctant to do even in times of high unemployment. In these times with unemployment at its lowest in several decades, this is even more true. The vast majority of farm workers are from Mexico and Central America where conditions of extreme poverty drives people to suffer the hardships of American farms in silence. Most estimates place the Mexican and Central American farm worker population at over 90% of all farm workers in the US. While most speak only Spanish, there is an increasing number who speak neither Spanish nor English but rather the native languages of the region from which they came. The fact that the vast majority of farm workers are non-white adds a dimension of racial and ethnic discrimination against them; not only in terms of employment practices but also in the relationships within the established communities in which they work. 

Economic Conditions 

Their exclusion from federal and state legislation that protect other workers against exploitation and unfair labor practices is one of the reasons contributing to the low wages paid to farm workers. Many of the federal labor policies, enacted in the 1930’s, were promulgated at a time when the family farm was the predominant production unit and family members provided the labor. While the family farm is no longer the predominant production structure, large corporate controlled farms that employ large numbers of migrant workers currently benefit from these policies at the expense of workers. 

The National Labor Relations Act (NRLA) of 1935 and the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) of 1938 imposed limits on the exploitation of labor. The NRLA guarantees workers the right to organize and join labor unions while the FLSA sets minimum standards for wages, overtime provisions and child labor laws. However, both acts excluded farm workers (the largest category excluded) from protections they provided for other workers. The FLSA was amended in 1966 to cover farm workers but excluded small farms from the minimum wage provisions. Other pieces of legislation also exclude farm workers from pension plans, unemployment insurance and workers’ compensation. 

The severe economic conditions of farm workers is reflected in the following facts:

        The reported average hourly wage of farm workers nationally is about $6.17, which is 7 per cent less than in 1977, after inflation (New York Times)  (However, many farm worker advocates contend that this figure is very misleading and is actually much lower. Farm workers work as many as 12 to 14 hours per day, but a workday of 8 hours is used to calculate the hourly wage.)   

        In the peak season farm workers work as much as 12 to 14 hours per day, six or seven days per week but no overtime is paid. 

        The average annual income of farm workers is between $7,000.00 and $8,000.00. This is lowest of all wage and salary workers in the US. 

        The number of farm workers living in poverty is increasing. In 1994-95, sixty one per cent of farm workers lived in poverty compared to fifty per cent in 1990.


In North Carolina:

Health and Other Social Conditions: 

Low wages and harsh working conditions are the major causes of the wide range of social ills that affect migrant farm workers and their families. Again, exemption from rules that protect workers in other sectors and poor enforcement of existing rules leave farm workers vulnerable and without legal recourse. 

Growers have traditionally provided housing during the working season as a way of attracting workers. This housing was often substandard and isolated. The poor housing conditions led to tightened federal standards enacted in 1986. While the standards resulted in improvements, they meet the bare minimum for human habitation and enforcement is weak and spotty. The Housing Assistance Council estimates that some 800,000 farm workers lack adequate housing in the US.  

The North Carolina law requiring that all growers providing farm worker housing be registered with and inspected by the state prior to occupancy is often ignored. The North Carolina Department of Labor estimates that less than half the state’s 22,000 farms providing housing are not registered and thus not inspected. This is not surprising given the fact that there are only four full time and four seasonal inspectors and calls into question the states’ commitment to enforcing its own minimal standards. The defiance of the law is predictable given that the force of the law is almost never applied to violators. 

After mining, farming is the second most dangerous occupation in the US. The use of hazardous equipment and machinery and exposure to pesticides are the main factors contributing to injury and sickness among farm workers. Pesticide exposures pose one of the most insidious threats to farm worker health. In most instances workers are often not adequately informed of the dangers of exposure nor are they provided with safety equipment although these are requirements of federal and state law. Pesticide poisoning often occurs gradually and causes lingering health conditions including allergies, respiratory problems, skin rashes and nervous system disorders and the early symptoms are often confused with fatigue or the flu.

While only a small percentage of pesticide related illnesses are reported to the government, the Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 300,000 farm workers suffer pesticide poisoning each year. Again, the weakness in the system is not necessarily in the laws but in their enforcement and the application of the penalties. Fines for violations are often less expensive than correcting the problem, thus undermining the intent of the law. The average fine for pesticide violations on the farms is a measly $370.00. While homeowners face a maximum fine of $5000.00 for misuse of pesticides in North Carolina, growers in the state face a maximum annual fine of only $500 (Smith-Nonini, Sandy; 1999). 

Poor sanitation, hazardous working conditions, pesticide exposure and poisoning and a lack of health care result in the situation where the life expectancy of farm workers is 49 years (25 years below the national average) and where infant mortality rates in that population is 125 per cent higher than in the general population (Smith-Nonini, 1999) 

In North Carolina:

        Of the growers provided housing submitted to water testing, 44 per cent had contaminated water (University of North Carolina. Reported by Smith-Nonini.) 

        One wash tub per 30 workers meets the state’s requirements.  

        In 1986, of farm workers tested, 86 per cent had intestinal parasites - a reflection of poor sanitation and contaminated water (University of North Carolina. Reported by Smith-Nonini.)  

        Despite a legal requirement, a survey found that only 4 per cent of farm workers had access to drinking water, toilets and hand washing facilities in the fields. (Human Rights Watch) 

        There are four federally funded clinics that serve farm workers where patients pay on a sliding scale according to income. However, more than 60 per cent of the migrant farm worker population live in counties outside the service area of a migrant health center. (NC Farmworker Health Alliance, March 1996)

        The state provides limited funds for migrant health services. These funds provide reimbursements for doctors, dentists, clinics and pharmacies for care to farm workers and their dependents who have been employed in the state within the past 24 months. (NC Farmworker Health Alliance, March 1996) 


Child Labor:


“Laws governing child labor in agriculture are inadequate and out of date, enforcement is lax, and sanctions against violators are insignificant. The differential treatment of children working in agriculture as opposed to children working in other occupations is indefensible and discriminatory.” (Human Rights Watch, 2000) 

No one knows how many children labor in the fields of the United States and estimates vary widely. The General Accounting Office estimates that there are 300,000 fifteen to seventeen year olds working in agriculture, while acknowledging that is probably a low estimate. The United Farm Workers Union put the figure at about 800,000.  

For the sake of this debate the numbers hardly matter – United States and International law considers all persons under seventeen years old to be children and are entitled to certain protections and rights. These rights and protections are consistently (and legally) denied child farm workers in the United States. A 1997 study by the School of Public Health at UCLA Berkeley reported that age thirteen to fifteen as the most common ages at which children begin agricultural work. 

Despite the fact that agriculture is the most hazardous and physically taxing area of work in which children are allowed, it is the least regulated and offers the least protection. Children are subject to the same or worse discrimination that adults face with respect to laws and their enforcement (or lack thereof) when working in agriculture. But the impacts of working long hours in dangerous situations have more lasting and negative consequences for children who are still developing physically, mentally and emotionally. Twelve-hour days are the norm. These long hours interfere with schooling as child farm workers do not attend school or are too tired to learn if they are enrolled in school.  The system perpetuates the cycle of poverty that plagues farm worker families.  

The parents of child farm workers are themselves farm workers. The below poverty wages and other conditions make it very difficult for farm workers to afford to send their children to school and children are forced to work to assist the family to meet immediate survival needs. Families are thus trapped in a cycle of poverty. Migrant farm worker families are particularly affected as their transitory life styles make it difficult for children to attend school regularly. 

Child farm workers are twice denied. The poverty their families suffer and which forces them to work denies them the joys of childhood. The opportunities for education and learning denied them during childhood also rob them of a future in which they can fully realize their potentials as human beings.

Under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), children working on farms are provided less protection than their counterparts working in less hazardous jobs. FLSA allows children working on farms to be employed at a younger age, for longer hours with no overtime pay and in more dangerous circumstances. In addition to the failure of the FLSA to protect child farm workers, the United States Congress exempts all farms with fewer than eleven employees from enforcement of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulations. 

The laws allowing discrimination against child farm workers are in contravention of the Convention on the Rights of the Child and other international laws that prohibit the exploitation of children and their exposure to work that is harmful to them. Human Rights Watch reports that “the United States appears to be headed toward non-compliance with the 1999 International Labor Organization’s (ILO) Worst Forms of Child Labor Convention, which will enter into force in the US in December 2000.  

In the United States:

        Only 55 per cent of farm worker children will graduate from high school. (Human Rights Watch) 

        The drop out rate for farm worker youth is 45 percent, compared to 29 per cent in the non-farm worker population (General Accounting Office) 

        Only 10 per cent of migrant farm workers finish high school (Sandy Smith-Nonini, University of North Carolina)

        Eighty per cent of adult migrant farm workers function at the 5th grade literacy level or less (Human Rights Watch) 

        There is no limit on the number of hours per day a child can be required to work in agriculture. In all other occupations, children under seventeen are limited to three hours of work per day when school is in session. 

        Children may engage in hazardous work at the age of sixteen in agriculture. In other occupations, the minimum age for hazardous work is eighteen 

        It is estimated that there are over one million violations related to child labor in US agriculture each year (Human Rights Watch) 

        North Carolina is one of eighteen states that have no minimum legal age requirement for children working in agriculture (The Child Labor Coalition, reported by Human Rights Watch.)


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