By CHRISTINA HEADRICK, Staff Writer
The Mexican government will investigate complaints about the treatment of Mexican farmworkers in North Carolina as part of a federal "guest worker" program.
The decision comes in response to a petition submitted early this year by the Farmworker Justice Fund in Washington and the Central Independiente de Obreros Agricolas y Campesinos in Mexico, another farmworker advocacy group.
The Mexican government's announcement, made last week, gave few details about what the review would entail or its schedule, except to say that it would consult with the United States and was ready to receive information from the farmworker advocacy groups and other interested parties. A public report will be compiled from the findings.
"We are pleased that the government of Mexico concluded that the plight of migrant farmworkers in North Carolina deserves attention," said Bruce Goldstein, co-executive director of the Farmworker Justice Fund. "The treatment of farmworkers under the H-2A guest worker program is a travesty and must be addressed."
Stan Eury, executive director of the N.C. Growers Association, which recruited about 9,000 farmworkers this year and brought them to North Carolina under temporary H-2A agricultural worker visas, scoffed at the complaints.
"We have actually a very good record with farmworkers and think we do a very good job," said Eury, who had not seen the advocacy groups' petition.
Eury maintains that farmworkers in the program are treated better than those who come to the United States illegally. He suggested that the probe's timing is meant to sway debate in Washington about whether to expand and revise the program, including proposals to reduce mandated wages for H-2A workers.
"It's more of a publicity stunt than anything," Eury said.
Early this year, the advocates presented the government with a detailed petition seeking the review by Mexico's National Administrative Office, which was created to deal with international labor issues under a supplemental agreement to the North American Free Trade Agreement.
U.S. Department of Labor spokespeople said Monday that issuing an official comment would be premature.
The advocacy groups targeted North Carolina, Goldstein said, because the state draws more H-2A workers than any other, thanks to the N.C. Growers Association, which provides workers to more than 1,000 farms. Last year, about 10,000 H-2A workers traveled to North Carolina, roughly a quarter of those involved in the program, by federal estimates.
Under the program, employers must provide accurate information about the nature of the work and pay in a contract; must pay at least minimum wage or the going rate for agricultural labor in an area if that is higher; must provide workers' compensation insurance; and must pay workers' transportation costs to and from their countries, provided the workers complete their contract.
The advocates maintain that workers are routinely denied the ability to make workers' compensation claims. They allege that they are denied the right to organize unions, prevented from receiving visitors such as labor lawyers in employer-provided housing, and blacklisted from being hired again if they push for better treatment under the program's regulations.
Their petition also complains that workers are given contracts that exceed the growing season. That means workers must sit idle and unpaid at the end of their contracts to be reimbursed for transportation costs home. Many leave early and shoulder those costs themselves, advocates say.
Lori Elmer, a lawyer with Legal Aid of North Carolina's farmworker unit in Raleigh, said she was pleased to hear that the Mexican government would look into some of the issues .
"The fact that North Carolina was chosen as a focus of investigation," Elmer said, "should tell North Carolina that there's a problem here."