North Carolina Migrant Farmworkers

6 07 2010

Hello reader!

As part of my internship at the Wake County Health Department, I had the opportunity to visit one of their auxiliary centers in Zebulon, a rural area southeast of Raleigh. Here, and at another center in the town of Fuquay-Varina, an evening clinic for migrant workers employed by local growers is held twice a week.

I went on a Tuesday night, and it took me about 1.5 hrs driving in some bad traffic from Durham. On the way there, I drove a long time in what seemed like the middle of nowhere. The classic Carolina trees lining the road made it hard to tell just how much land there was on either side, but finally, I made it to the town of Zebulon, and not far off the highway, I found the Southeastern Regional Center.

I walked into what seemed like any other state building at night: empty, with only some lights on in the main lobby. However, 10 or so men, who looked like they ranged from their late teens to their 40’s,
were seated watching a telenovela in Spanish, waiting to be seen by nurses and a nurse practitioner, and in a way, it almost felt like any other clinic during the day.

These men are migrant workers, who under the H2A migrant worker program, migrate temporarily to the US during the picking season (approx June to September) to work for American growers. In this
region, the men pick sweet potatoes and tobacco. The system is designed to provide a legal and organized way for foreign labor to come in during the agricultural business’s most needy time, and for
the workers to benefit from the opportunity to be hired, which may be limited in their home countries in Mexico and Central America. However, the system has some serious flaws. The need for the evening
migrant clinic is just one exhibit of the shortcomings, and arguably, abuses of the status quo.

The migrant clinic is a project of Wake County organized under Linda Burton, an RN who for the past 11 years has been running it and funding it by applying for grants from a source within the federal Department of Agriculture. The project first reaches out to workers in the field at their housing on the grower’s property. A couple of RNs go to them and do some basic health assessments, including symptom screenings for certain illnesses including TB,  on Mondays and Wednesdays, and if any of them have any health concerns that require more expertise, on Tuesdays and Thursdays the same nurses will pick up the men and bring them into the clinic. There, they have their vitals checked and the nurse practitioner examines them and addresses their concerns. If needed, they can get some medicines at this time. They also have the opportunity to get tested for HIV and syphilis (blood test) and gonorrhea and Chlamydia (urine).

All of these services are free, and funded by the grants. Without this clinic, the workers, who cannot afford private health care of any sort, and who would be hard pressed to find transportation, probably
would not have anywhere to go to get care. This is especially tragic because the worker’s health is crucial in their line of work, since they do not get paid for days they cannot work, even for health
reasons. On top of that, even though there are regulations in place that would theoretically protect the workers, many of them fear that their employers will not hire them again or not pay them fairly
because they missed work due to health reasons. What about public clinics? Well, these are not free, but even if the cost is reduced, the workers cannot access them because they are not citizens.

Now some people may argue that the state shouldn’t have to take care of the worker’s health. Well, maybe the growers should, considering that it is their business which puts these men at many health risks. For example, one commonly distributed medicine at the clinic is Dramamine, which most people use for motion sickness. For tobacco pickers, it is the only known way to protect people from the symptoms of tobacco sickness- nicotine poisoning caused by extended close contact with tobacco plants. Another concern is toxicity from exposure to pesticides, and yet another is work-related injuries from what
everyone can imagine is strenuous, physical work.

I realize it seems biased to make these claims that it’s the grower’s fault that these health concerns occur – I’ve heard the argument that it could theoretically be a lack of precautions and carelessness on the worker’s side.  However, it is evident to me that these workers are a vulnerable population. Many of them do not speak Spanish, and more may not be well informed about their rights, or afraid to stand up for themselves at the risk of losing a job that they value so much and make sacrifices for. There is definitely room for exploitation and carelessness on the side of their employers, and I am more convinced each time I hear about the violations and injustice that occurs in their living conditions from reliable sources, such as some of my friends who are interning with Student Action with Farmworkers. For more information on these issues, you can visit http://www.saf-unite.org/.

-Catherine Castillo

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