DURHAM — In past summers, Christina Vazquez harvested mint and sugar beets in Idaho.
The fields didn’t have drinking water, she said. She and the other farmworkers would carry jugs, which they quickly drained in the summer heat.
The workers didn’t have toilets either.
“I would hold it in for eight hours or go behind a bush,” said the 20-year-old student at the University of Idaho.
This summer, Vazquez experienced farm work from a different perspective, as one of 27 interns from 22 colleges selected by Student Action with Farmworkers, a nonprofit that works to improve the conditions of migrant farmworkers.
SAF will celebrate the organization’s 20th anniversary Saturday night outside its offices at 1317 W. Pettigrew St. in Durham.
In the fields
Like Vazquez, Alma Hernandez has spent summers in the fields, working on New Mexico farms since she was 16.
This summer, SAF placed her at the N.C. Justice Center, while Vazquez worked in the Legal Aid of North Carolina-Farmworker Unit. Both offices are in the same building in downtown Raleigh.
During the day, Vazquez and Hernandez did paperwork and updated databases. Three times a week, they visited farmworker camps to help with issues such as working conditions or wage theft.
Vazquez said the Legal Aid group typically arrived as the workers were returning from the fields a few miles away.
“You can always see in their faces how tired they are,” she said.
The trailers or dilapidated shacks offer little relief from the heat, she said. N.C. Department of Labor laws don’t require air conditioning or fans.
Pedro Garcia, 47, worked in construction for 25 years before he was laid off. He is adjusting to his life as a migrant farmworker.
Garcia, who is from Florida, said he earned up to $1,000 a week as a construction foreman, but now makes as little as $100 a week.
“The biggest difference is not being able to provide for my family the way I used to,” said Garcia, who lives with his family in Clinton.
In the evening, Garcia and the other workers play horseshoes and dominoes beneath the trees in the dirt yard.
“When you are in need, you struggle,” he said. “You accept whatever comes to you.”
There are 150,000 farmworkers in North Carolina, and 2 million to 3 million in the U.S., according to the SAF website.
About 53 percent lacked documents to work in the United States, while 46 percent were U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents, the Department of Labor reported in a 2005 survey.
The average farmworker made $11,000, and only 13 percent had completed high school, the survey also found.
The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 excludes farmworkers from overtime pay and sets the minimum age for farmworkers at 12 instead of 16, the minimum for most jobs
Dangers in the field
Altha Cravey, a UNC-Chapel Hill geography professor, said she witnessed the lack of child labor protections while researching the migration of Latinos to North Carolina.
“I observed firsthand places that had small children exposed to dangerous chemicals,” she said. “It’s a deep tragedy to have this go on just so that we can have cheap food.”
Child labor dangers
U.S. Rep. David Price has sponsored legislation to help farmworkers earn legal residency and praised SAF’s work.
“We all know food doesn’t magically appear in our supermarkets,” Price said in an email. “Often it gets there because seasonal workers work long hours for low wages in often hazardous conditions.
For 20 years, SAF has helped these workers pursue dignity and justice through collaborative, community-based programs.”
The organization has also worked on state legislation, helping to amend the Migrant Housing Act of North Carolina and guarantee each worker a bed with a mattress, among other measures.
After 20 years, SAF has reached 700 young people and 80,000 farmworkers, executive director Melinda Higgins said.
The changes she sees in people’s lives are sometimes as rewarding as the changes in legislation, she added.
“I’ve seen so many young people get involved and take a stance, and I’ve seen more workers want to share their story.”