The reality for North Carolina migrant farmworkers


Photo by Immo Wegmann on Unsplash

Shelby Diehl, Contributing Writer

For the past week, UNCW’s College of Health & Human Services has been hosting “Food for Thought: Farmworkers & the Intersection of Equity, Health & Food.” This series of presentations, panels and film screenings have been in recognition of National Farmworkers Awareness Week, a week of action for students and community members to honor farmworkers’ important contributions and to raise awareness about the issues they face.

Migrant farmworkers are individuals required to be absent from a permanent place of residence for the purpose of seeking employment in agricultural work. This includes people who work seasonally or temporarily in orchards, farm fields, canneries, plant nurseries, meat/seafood packing plants and more. Approximately 19% of farmworkers are “migrant.”

Migrant farmworkers traditionally enter the country under one of two different statuses: H-2A/documented or non-documented. The H-2A program allows U.S. employers to bring in foreigners to the United States to fill temporary agricultural jobs. North Carolina is one of the largest users of the H2-A visa with between 14,000 and 17,000 H-2A workers annually.

There are an estimated 3 million seasonal and migrant farmworkers in the U.S. North Carolina ranks sixth in the nation in the number of migrant farmworkers. There are approximately 150,000 farmworkers and their dependents in North Carolina each growing season, but this estimate is low. 

Seasonal and migrant farmworkers are essential to North Carolina’s agriculture and economy. Agriculture contributes over $69.6 billion to North Carolina’s economy annually and represents nearly one-fifth of the state’s income. Each farmworker’s labor contributes over $12,000 in profits to North Carolina’s economy annually. However, despite their beneficial impact, many have the misconception that domestic workers are losing jobs to migrant farmworkers.

“They’re not stealing our jobs,” said Isiah Cole Bryant, a UNCW graduate student, during his presentation on migrant farmworkers. “They’re here maintaining our economies.”

In CHHS’s “Educational Presentation: Exploring the Rights of Migrant Farmworkers,” attendees learned from Bryant about the life and experiences of migrant farmworkers. Bryant served as an intern to aid in farmworker camps; providing resources and support to those who harvest our foods. During his internship, he learned firsthand about the hardships and inequities that farmworkers live with daily. The following are some of the many hardships he discussed. 


Nationally, farmworkers’ average annual income is $11,000; for a family it is approximately $16,000. Farmworkers on the East Coast earn about 35% less than the national average. This means individuals on the East Coast, including North Carolina, only make an estimated $7,150; for a family, an estimated $10,400. The percent of farmworker families living in poverty is nearly double that of other working families in the US.

Despite working seasonal and intermittent jobs with low pay, numerous farmworkers are ineligible for unemployment benefits due to many agricultural employers being exempt from unemployment taxes. In spite of the high levels of poverty, most farmworkers do not receive any public benefits. Nationally, between 2015-2016, only 43% received health insurance through a government program, 18% of farmworkers received food stamps and 17% received WIC.

Food Insecurity

Food insecurity is defined as the disruption of food intake or eating patterns because of lack of money and other resources. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) divides food insecurity into the following two categories: low food security and very low food security. This exists if people have limited or uncertain ability to acquire nutritionally adequate and safe food. Food insecurity is frequently associated with poor health outcomes.

A 2011 study by Hill et al. examined the prevalence of food insecurity in migrant and seasonal farmworkers in Georgia. Of these workers, 62.83% did not have enough food. In North Carolina, nearly five out of every 10 farmworker households reported not being able to afford enough food to feed their families. Both of these cases can be tied back to the high levels of poverty experienced by many migrant farmworkers. 


The transient nature of farmwork has left migrant farmworkers dependent on scarce, often dilapidated, temporary housing. These housing conditions are unsanitary, crowded and poorly ventilated which poses risks to workers’ health, increasing their vulnerability to anything from infectious diseases to heat strokes. During his presentation, Bryant recalled visiting a farmworker household with those exact conditions; approximately 50 men shared the house. 

In a 2012 study conducted by Arcury et al., researchers found at least four housing violations in every camp studied. Nearly three-fourths of the camps had more than ten violations with some camps having as many as 22. These violations included toilets and showers not working, polluted drinking water, no fire escape, no smoke alarms and serious infestations with roaches, mice and rats. These camps do not meet the minimum standards set in place by state and federal regulations.

In North Carolina, farmworker families are at risk due to these minimum standards employed by state regulations. State regulations require only one bathtub for every 30 workers, one toilet for every 15 workers, one shower for every ten workers and do not require telephone access even if only for emergencies. 

Mental and Physical Health

A study conducted by Hovey JD and Magaña CG in 2002 revealed that migrant farmworkers with heightened levels of acculturative stress were more likely to report high levels of anxiety and depression. This anxiety and depression isn’t only tied to the stress of working in fields. The study links these mental health issues to lack of agreement with the decision to migrate, family dysfunction, ineffective social support and low self-esteem among other things.

“It’s pretty common that we see mental health [issues among farmworkers].” Bryant said. “They would imply that there’s nothing wrong with them. [Meanwhile,] some would be completely honest and say they have anxiety. It is sort of taboo.”

Migrant farmworker populations suffer mortality and morbidity rates greater than the majority of the American population. This is in part to poverty, limited access to health care, dangerous working conditions and the lack of regulations. Farmworkers experience a range of occupational health injuries and illnesses including allergens, musculoskeletal strains, falls, lacerations, trauma, exposure to pesticides and other chemicals, heat and cold extremes and exposure to sun.

Health Care 

Migrant farmworkers experience a multitude of challenges when searching for affordable health care coverage. A few of these challenges include the costs of healthcare, shortage of healthcare services, confusing eligibility requirements, concern of losing paid work time, lack of culturally and linguistically appropriate services and for undocumented workers the fear of how their immigration status will affect eligibility.

Medicaid is available to migrant farmworkers, but eligible farmworkers can have difficulty enrolling in Medicaid for a number of reasons. One of these reasons is eligible farmworkers may have difficulty completing the application and enrollment process due to their limited English skills. Spanish is the dominant language for 77% of all farmworkers, with 43% of all farmworkers speaking “a little” and 30% of farmworkers speaking no English. 


Awareness raising is important because it educates people about topics new to them and encourages participation in bringing change. The goal is to make people understand the importance of a certain issue and find support to address it. By raising awareness, this encourages others to hold officials accountable, volunteering, and more.

The Department of Labor and federal/local officials can be held accountable for the minimum standards they have put in place for migrant farmworkers. Accountability is one of the bedrocks of representative government. Ways individuals can hold the Department of Labor and officials accountable include improving public dialogue, stopping political laboring, avoiding the politics of destruction, avoiding ideological rigidity, and by lobbying.

Those at the state and federal level can help migrant farmworkers by pursuing better housing regulations for farmworkers. In raising the minimum standards, housing conditions could shift away from the current unsanitary, crowded and poorly ventilated conditions. This would lower the risks for illness and injury current living situations pose.

Individuals can help by getting involved and volunteering with local organizations that provide resources and support to farmworkers. A few of these organizations include Manos Unidas, Student Action with Farmworkers, Episcopal Farmworker Ministry, Legal Aid of NC: Farmworker Unit, Coastal Horizons and NC Farmworker Health Programs. These organizations also accept donations to help migrant farmworkers in need.

“When you eat today, remember farmworkers. When you eat tomorrow, think of farmworkers. Think about where that food came from. We appreciate a great meal, but not always where the food comes from.” Bryant concluded.