PART TWO: Migrant Farmworkers in ENC

Feb 11, 2013

This week, we focus on the growers responsibility to provide free housing to migrant workers.

Last week, we examined a study from Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center that found drinking water at a third of farmworker camps in eastern North Carolina were contaminated. Sixty one of the 181 camps that were included in the report failed to meet current health standards- and two of them tested positive for E.Coli. Professor of Family and Community Medicine at Wake Forest University Dr. Thomas Arcury helped draft the study. He says the majority of farmworker camps his team visited in eastern North Carolina had unsanitary and unsafe conditions. Dr. Arcury blames lax standards for farmworker housing and the lack of annual inspections as reasons the water contamination hasn't been found until now.

"There's only a requirement that there be only one working shower head for each 10 farmworkers, there must be one working toilet for each 15 farmworkers, that there be one washing machine or wash tub for 30 farmworkers, that's the current requirement. Those are fairly minimal."

However, when we spoke with the North Carolina Department of Labor's Agricultural Safety and Health Bureau Chief Regina Cullen, she said inspections are performed on the water systems of farmworker camps on an annual basis.

"Sometimes Absolutely there are problems with the water Sometimes growers have dug new wells, sometimes they have chlorinated a water supply. If we are getting a call in the middle of the season saying hey there's a camp out here with contaminated water, we refer that to the local health department and they'll go out and check. "

Approximately 8,000 farmworkers come to North Carolina on a H2-A visa annually. Greene County Health Care Director Steve Davis says most live in state-regulated housing provided by the growers.

"We have some camps where there is three workers to a room, access to satellite tv and access to a phone and also have air conditioning. That's not a requirement. On the other hand, there are trailers you can almost literally see the outside thru the holes in the walls. You're scared to walk in there because you might fall thru the floors. It does vary a lot."

Davis has worked for 16 years with Greene County Health Care, which provides care for migrant workers and underserved persons in 12 eastern North Carolina counties.

"We serve Wilson, Wayne, Lenoir, Duplin, Greene, Pitt, Martin, Pamlico, Craven, Carteret that's the main ones."

The North Carolina Department of Labor has guidelines for farmworker housing that must pass inspection before occupancy can occur. The bureau also performs inspections based on complaints and referrals.

"They are very specific about their regulations and their guidelines and they can come in and inspect your camp anytime they please."

The owner of Relyea Farms in Greene County, Natalie Relyea says the Department of Labor's guidelines for migrant worker housing are meticulous.

"One of the strictest regulations that they have and one that we always follow is there is a water sample taken every year and it is tested and they inspect the septic systems and everything."
Some of the same farmworkers have been coming to Relyea farms for more than 20 years.

Natalie and her husband John Relyea have owned and operated the farm, which is located approximatly nine miles south of Snow Hill, since 1975. They've been using migrant farmworkers for 22 years. There are currently nine migrant workers at Relyea Farms, some have been there since the start. Migrant workers perform a variety of jobs, mostly, harvesting more than 200 acres of tobacco and produce.

About three times a week, Relyea says she and her husband conduct their own inspections of the housing, making sure the area is up to the Department of Labor's standards.

"If there's any issues, we make sure to get those corrected. We check the hot water heater to make sure the water systems are working properly. There should be no food left out, and food must be covered and placed in the refrigerator. Trashcans have to have liners and covers. We have to provide bedding, the house has to be clean and we abide by those rules."

Following the regulations, Relyea says is how she keeps the inspectors from finding violations and her workers happy.

"The outcome of us making our money depends on our workers. They are not mistreated, sometimes you might have one farmer that gives everybody a bad name but I can assure you every farmer that I know that uses H2-A farmworkers goes above and beyond. When they go back to Mexico we communicate by phone we talk to each other at Christmas."

While Relyea says she considers her workers family, other growers in eastern North Carolina don't feel the same way. In a different study by Wake Forest University, researchers found infestations of roaches, mice and rats; non-working toilets and showers; contaminated drinking water; and lack of fire safety equipment and smoke alarms were common.

Ultimately, it's up to the growers to provide safe housing and access to clean drinking water. In some cases, organizations like Greene County Health Care have to intervene. Director Steve Davis.

"Now, if it's something that's a health risk, something that's a health risk and can be very dangerous, of course if we have to, we will take the appropriate steps. But a lot of times, it's not necessarily making a complaint as the first step its going to the grower and let them know what's going on or the crew leader and letting them know what's going on and more times than not, that is taken care of."

If you'd like more information on The Community-Based Participatory Approach to Farmworker Housing, Exposures & Health study, you can find a link at our website,

click here for a link to the study: