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Migrant housing bill hijacked 

A bill that passed in the North Carolina House last month is meeting opposition from farm-worker advocates who say its original purpose--the improvement of poor housing conditions for migrant farm workers--was eliminated in the legislative process. The Enhance Migrant Housing Act, House Bill 697, narrowly made it through earlier this month after its precursor, The Migrant Worker Housing Act, had failed to meet the legislature's crossover deadline.

The passed bill is an agency bill, a collaboration between Rep. Julia Howard, R-Davie, and the state Department of Labor. It would give Commissioner of Labor Cherie Berry rule-making power in her department, including over migrant housing. Berry would be able to explain and clarify the parts of the existing law, but she couldn't change the basic skeleton of the legislation.

Those in favor of the Enhance Migrant Housing Act say it does what it's supposed to do, which is to leave the current standards alone. Rep. Howard expressed her general approval of the bill.

"Everybody came on board with the bill," Howard says. "Sweet potato growers, fruit growers, peanut growers and Christmas tree growers." But the absence of worker advocates in that list is clear--a fact she acknowledges. She said the bill does not change anything that's in place, but that it is an enhancement over the existing legislation because it makes it easier for farmers to understand and therefore comply with the law in place.

The problem, maintains a statewide coalition of worker advocates, The Farmworker Advocacy Network, is that what's in place is not enough.

The Migrant Worker Housing Act was written in 1989 and hadn't been touched until this year.

The first reincarnation of the bill was sponsored this winter in both houses. Both sponsors, Sen. Bill Purcell of Scotland County and Rep. Martha Alexander of Mecklenburg County, worked closely with coalition members of the Farmworker Advocacy Network to write it.

According to Melinda Wiggins of the non-profit organization Student Action with Farmworkers, their bill addressed several concerns, including increased basic health and sanitation standards as well as the increased enforcement of those standards. It required, among other things, mattresses on beds, telephones in cases of emergency, and locks mandated on doors.

As it stands now, Wiggins says, if a worker complains of poor housing conditions and the farmer finds out, he or she can be fired with no protection under the law. The coalition lobbied for an anti-retaliation clause that would have protected against this.

It would have been impossible to pass the first bill in the house, Purcell says, although he would have liked to see it happen. "I think most farmers take good care of these workers. I would say the majority don't have these problems," he says.

In addition, Wiggins said that less than half of all labor camps are registered with the Department of Labor. Camps that are not registered cannot be inspected.

The bill that passed the House, Wiggins says, is erroneously named. "It does not enhance migrant housing. It does not change the current standards. It does not protect workers. It does not make the Department of Labor do anything to address the lack of enforcement at all."

North Carolina has the fifth largest farm worker population in the nation, 93 percent of whom are Spanish-speakers, according to a 2003 report by the N.C. Farmworker Health Program. They also found that the state's growers employ the largest number of H-2A workers in the country, with nearly 10,000 annually. H-2A workers are migrant agricultural workers given temporary permits to be in the country.

Leonardo Galvan was once counted in that number. Galvan worked in the tobacco fields for 10 years and now works as a farm worker advocate in Benson. He sees the workers' living conditions in Johnston, Sampson and Harnett counties on a daily basis.

"Every afternoon I'm in the fields and I realize that of every 100 houses, you can see one or two in good condition. The rest are in bad condition," he says. "There is no privacy in the bathrooms--there's no separation. It's like a prison, with six to eight workers per room."

Lori Fernald Khamala, of the National Farm Worker Ministry, has also seen some of the workers' living conditions, and said that the standards for migrant housing fall below those for North Carolina jails.

"The conditions are what most people would expect from a third-world country, not the United States," said Khamala. She described several labor camps she visited where workers sleep on mattress frames without mattresses. "That currently meets the standard. They can go out and cite that, but it wouldn't stand up in a court of law," she said.

The bill is in a Senate Committee on Agriculture, and when the bill reaches the full Senate, there is question as to whether the members of the Farmworker Advocacy Network will be standing in active opposition.

"We are not taking an official position except to say it doesn't do anything to improve the standards," says Carol Brooke, an attorney with the N.C. Justice Center, another group in the coalition. "We are hoping the Department of Labor will take some steps to improve their bill."

Although the rules the commissioner might implement couldn't do more than clarify what's already there, Khamala said the thought of giving more power to Berry, who's a Republican, is a disquieting one.

"This commissioner of labor hasn't proven herself to be a friend of workers," she says.

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