According to the study, “Wages, Wage Violations and Pesticide Safety Experienced by Migrant Farmworkers in North Carolina,” migrant farm workers face “a myriad of problems” including poverty, food insecurity, pesticide exposure, occupational hazards, lack of health care and more. Limited safety regulations are available to protect these workers.

“This is a work force that needs to be protected,” said Arcury, who also is the director of the Center for Worker Health at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center. “It is vulnerable for many reasons, one of which because it’s poor, another because it’s a dangerous industry. We need to do something so it’s safe for them.”

The study focused on 300 migrant farm workers who worked in 52 camps, or employer-provided housing, in eastern North Carolina. Most of the workers hailed from Mexico. Approximately two-thirds of the workers had H-2A visas for temporary or seasonal work; the remainder of participants were undocumented, had other types of documentation or were permanent U.S. residents. The study found:

  • Approximately 15 percent of workers were provided with safety equipment to protect against pesticide exposure.
  • One-third of workers said they were offered safety instruction about pesticides.
  • About half of study participants were informed when pesticides were applied or when the no re-entry period was over.
  • One-quarter of workers reported that they were asked to enter fields before the no re-entry interval had ended.
  • Sixteen percent of workers said they worked in the fields while pesticides were being applied.
  • Workers who experienced wage violations also often experienced “improper pesticide safety and training conditions.”

The study suggests that workers with H-2A visas often experience fewer pay or safety violations. Workers with H-2A visas were more likely to be provided with safety equipment, be informed when the no re-entry period had ended and less likely to work in fields when pesticides were being applied. And while one-fifth of all studied workers experienced minimum wage violations, these violations were experienced by 45 percent of those workers without H-2A visas.

“The greater compliance available to migrant farmworkers with H-2A visas for wages and pesticide safety, as well as housing regulations, indicates that we could expect higher compliance for all farmworkers with more regulations and with greater monitoring and review of these regulations,” the study stated.

The Pay-Safety Correlation

Arcury pointed out that the correlation between employers not following pesticide regulations and those not following wage and salary regulations may reveal a new way to seek out those in noncompliance.

“We need to pay attention to people who aren’t following one set of regulations to see if they’re following the other set of regulations,” he told EHS Today. “Maybe there’s just a need for greater education about safety issues and regulations for agricultural workers. On the other hand, there may be individuals who don’t think they have to follow the rules, and they need to be dealt with just like anyone else who doesn’t follow regulations.”

Arcury stressed that regulations must be enforced to protect these workers and identified the following areas of concern:

  • Worker pesticide exposure must be monitored.
  • Farmers and others who apply pesticides should be required to regularly and centrally record what pesticides they are applying, the amount they apply and where they apply.
  • Heat stress requirements, training and prevention techniques should be developed.
  • Child labor concerns must be addressed within the industry.
  • Wage and salary concerns also must be addressed, and farm workers must be paid at least minimum wage.

“In North Carolina, our agricultural economy is based on immigrant workers. Without immigrant workers, we would not be able to pick the cucumbers and sweet potatoes, apples and peaches, tobacco and Christmas trees that are essential to our economy,” Arcury explained. “What we’re trying to do is improve the health of workers because I think that’s best for everyone.”