Heat stroke, pesticides and child labor are the social price of stocking America’s pantry with cheap groceries, a cost often endured by migrant workers who toil on North Carolina’s farms, farm laborers said Saturday.
Field workers and poultry workers from around the state described their working conditions at Raleigh’s Oakwood Cemetery in a day of remembrance for agricultural laborers who died in the fields.
Speaking mostly in Spanish, they urged public officials to help prevent on-the-job deaths by enforcing state and federal laws. The event was organized by groups that advocate for agricultural workers.
Several migrant workers who spoke Saturday have joined the ranks of labor activism. Yesenia Bustos, 22, said this past summer was the first in 14 years in which she was not out in the fields. As a child, she said, she wore trash bags for rain protection and worked as much as 120 hours a week.
Bustos weeded cotton rows and picked blueberries from ages 8 to 21 in Michigan and Arkansas, she said. This summer she had an internship with Student Action with Farmworkers, in which she traveled around the state to count migrant workers as part of a 2-year project in which the workers will be interviewed.
“I am very proud of being a farmworker,” Bustos declared. “It did teach me what work ethic is.”
The hourlong ceremony featured obituary readings for fallen agricultural laborers, as activists, migrant workers and their families encircled a Mexican “Day of the Dead” altar in the Moravian God’s Acre section of the burial ground.
One of the victims, who died of heat stroke in Transylvania County this summer, had made himself so invisible that his name is not known, or at least not openly discussed. The two dozen who gathered for the event dedicated a moment of silence to this anonymous laborer.
“His life and death matter,” his obituary read. “Let us take a moment to remember and honor this man’s life, as well as the lives of all other lost farmworkers whose deaths have not been recorded.”
After the event, a Guatemalan woman calling herself Miranda Alva said she works under a pseudonym because she is in this country illegally.
Looking at least a decade older than her declared age of 32, she said she has worked in a “pollera,” or chicken farm, for nine years. She said she processes 46 chicken wings per hour, 9 hours a day.
Her frustrations include denial of bathroom breaks, a common complaint among the laborers.
The event included representatives from N.C. Farmworker Advocacy Network, Student Action with Farmworkers, National Farmworker Ministry and Western N.C. Workers Center.