The shame remains

By: - August 2, 2005 6:35 am

If you accept that one of the jobs of state government is to address the problems facing the people of North Carolina, then our government is failing to do its job and people are suffering as a result.  While legislators are still hammering away at a budget agreement, legislation to improve the daily lives of thousands of people in the state is fading away.

Forty years ago, Edward R. Murrow shocked the country with his documentary “Harvest of Shame,” bringing images of the squalid living conditions faced by farm workers into living rooms across America. Some of the farm camps in Murrow’s documentary were in North Carolina.

Forty years later, the shame remains and we can no longer plead ignorance. Our leaders know and not only don’t care, but actually seem to endorse the living conditions endured by our migrant workers.

That is a message of a powerful new documentary “Standards of Living,” set to air on WRAL-TV Wednesday night and another stations across the state in the next few weeks. (For more information about the program, go to

The story is pretty simple. More than 50,000 migrant workers are brought here to harvest our food and tobacco in the summer and live in housing provided by the farmer that pays them.

In many cases, calling it housing is a stretch. Mattresses are often not provided, bathrooms and showers are few and no phones are available in case of emergencies. The words don’t do justice to the conditions that many of the workers live in, you will have to see the images in the documentary to understand that.

And this is not a story of outlaws skirting the system. The scandal is not that growers are breaking the law. The scandal is the law itself. Farmers are currently not required to provide a mattress for every worker. They are only required to provide one refrigerator for every 27 workers, one toilet for every 15 workers, and one shower for every ten.

Legislation to lower those ratios slightly and to require growers to provide a mattress for every worker is stalled in the General Assembly. It is stalled because of fierce opposition by a handful of farm and agribusiness groups and because of the cavalier anti-regulation dogma adhered to by Secretary of Labor Cherie Berry.

Berry opposes the slight improvements in the law because she says farmers already suffer under too much regulation. Requiring a mattress must be just another example of big government meddling in the affairs of the private market.  Berry also says that many of the problems are created by the workers themselves who create messy living conditions. Messy without a mattress apparently means that a mattress is not needed.

Secretary of Agriculture Steve Troxler has no problem with making mattresses mandatory, but he opposes the legislation too, because he is also worried that farmers are being regulated out of business.

The documentary profiles a farmer that Berry and Troxler should talk to. He provides housing well above the pitiful standard required by law and runs a profitable business. He points out that well-treated workers are more productive, a thought that apparently cannot breakthrough the knee-jerk anti-government cloud that seems to envelop Berry, Troxler, and many state lawmakers who believe having a mattress is just too luxurious.

Stories like the condition of the state’s migrant housing laws often get lost in a legislative session dominated by the taxes, the lottery, education, and health care. But it is hard to think of something that directly affects people’s lives more than the condition of the place where they sleep.

Let’s hope the documentary refocuses attention on those conditions and moves legislators to address them before they leave town this session. The issue is really not about agriculture or politics or immigration policy. It is about basic human decency and North Carolina’s shame for denying it. 

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Chris Fitzsimon

Chris Fitzsimon, Founder and Executive Director of N.C. Policy Watch, writes the Fitzsimon File, delivers a radio commentary broadcast on WRAL-FM and hosts "News and Views," a weekly radio news magazine that airs on multiple stations across North Carolina. [email protected] 919-861-2066