Migrant Workers picking strawberries in a Field

Group Takes Steps to Protect NC Farm Workers from Heat Stress

Farmworkers in North Carolina and across the U.S. face scorching heat with little protection at the federal and state level. However, the Farm Labor Organizing Committee is taking steps to enhance worker safety.

The group is ramping up heat protection guidelines for migrant workers in the South through an existing rule. Originally negotiated in 2006 with the North Carolina Growers Association, the rule aimed to address heat-related incidents. Now, it is being strengthened to improve conditions for more than 9,000 farmworkers.

Baldemar Velasquez, president of the committee, believes the efforts are key in safeguarding workers where legal measures do not.

“The problem with legislation, whether it’s the federal or state, it takes forever,” Velasquez asserted. “Enforcement is always an issue because we’re not talking about big factories with a lot of workers. We’re talking very remote labor camps, isolated, and so it’s important that workers know how to take action on their own.”

He noted under the new guidelines, workers who are a part of their union take heat safety into their own hands. The rules say if it is getting close to 85 degrees and workers have symptoms such as dizziness or nausea, they should take a break in the shade and drink water, no matter what the boss said. When it hits 95 degrees or more, breaks are supposed to happen every couple of hours. In 2023, at least five farmworkers died in North Carolina.

The fatality rate for agricultural workers in the state is higher than the national average, according to the North Carolina farmworker health program.

Mario Vargas, lead organizing development coordinator at the Campaign for Migrant Worker Justice, shared his 15 years of firsthand experience. He vividly depicted the challenges faced by workers, such as tall crops blocking the wind and constant pressure from employers.

Recognizing the urgent need for change, Vargas and his organization are teaming up with the committee to go beyond guidelines. They are prioritizing education.

“Because if you say, ‘Oh, we got another 100 feet to go so we can finish the row,’ you might not make it to the end of the row,” Vargas explained. “You need to stop and find some shade and drink some water. We let them know their rights, that they have a right.”

The group will be teaching farmworkers about the new guidelines, signs of heat stress, how to stay hydrated and when to seek medical help. Vargas added they will also have support channels to report issues or pushback to ensure their well-being is not compromised.