Dirty jobs

A complaint to the federal government raises tough questions about treatment of N.C. farm workers.

October 15, 2011 

It will be interesting to see if the federal Department of Labor is as sanguine about the working conditions of farm laborers in North Carolina as state labor officials seem to be. We doubt it. While state officials will say the right things about protecting the welfare of farm workers and those in poultry plants, to judge them by their actions is to conclude that their real commitment to standing up for those workers is minimal at best.

Of course, the state is in an interesting situation. Republican Cherie Berry has served as the independently elected commissioner of labor for more than 10 years, even though she seems much more concerned about helping business owners than laborers. Indeed, under her stewardship, the department has emphasized a curious role of being a shoulder to cry on for businesses, advocating few fines for workplace violations and defending what amounts to a lackadaisical attitude toward the welfare of workers.

Consider the complaint filed by Legal Aid of North Carolina, which is representing the interests of workers in this instance. The complaint filed with the federal government's Department of Labor says poultry plant workers and field hands bunk in crowded temporary camps and that the cooking and bathroom conditions are unsanitary.

Almost as bad is the allegation that state labor officials just don't do much to protect workers. The state's officials under Berry, says the complaint, don't enforce regulations and don't support the idea of substantial fines for employers when those employers were aware of problems but simply didn't do anything.

(Maybe they didn't do anything because they knew they had a friend in the state labor commissioner's office.)

The point that the complainants are making is that laying on heavy fines just because officials can do it isn't necessarily constructive. But they rightly say that employers who break the rules need to be punished to the point where they realize it's more expensive to break them than to follow them, protecting workers in the process.

State labor officials, who aren't going to address the issue in detail until they see what the feds say, offer a response that's entirely predictable, given Berry's record.

The state agency has this comment: "The 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."

Hello? These accusations should be about shame if the aforementioned employers are not inclined "to provide a safe and healthful place of employment." Temporary labor makes it possible for these employers to make more money. Offering safe conditions isn't too much to ask. And when things are unsafe, the hammer should come down on them, not a bouquet to console them for their trouble.

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