Agency, Upkeep, and Neglect in North Carolina Farm Labor Camps

by Bennett Heine

In a recent article in Human Organization, co-authors Thomas Arcury, Sarah Quandt, and I draw from interviews with migrant farmworkers to conclude that agency matters. It matters for the day-to-day material well-being and dignity of farmworkers and their families; for researchers looking to situate the lives and struggles of migrant farmworkers within a broader political economy of neoliberalism, extreme inequality, and migrant labor; and for policymakers trying to understand why migrant housing regulations bear so little resemblance to migrant housing camps in reality.

Our qualitative analysis of in-depth interviews with twenty-three migrant farmworkers and partners living in labor camps in eastern North Carolina reveals a pattern of ‘putting up with’ harmful and unpleasant housing conditions. These farmworkers and their partners neither condone nor ignore the leaking roofs, faulty electrical sockets, and cramped quarters of the camps. Instead, they actively pursue minor material improvements and, in doing so, appropriate a sense of dignity, all the while recognizing and condemning the conditions of the barracks and trailers their employers provide.

Ultimately, however, these housing improvements are restricted to the realms of the individual and the informal. This tightly circumscribed agency – expressed mainly through creative, informal, and reparative action – is therefore key in constructing a more livable day-to-day experience in the camps while at the same time co-constructing the very structural neglect to which it responds, as it further absolves employers and enforcement officials of the responsibility for upkeep and maintenance. Paradoxically, then, migrant farmworkers’ agency is central both to the short-term maintenance of livable housing and to its ongoing, long-term neglect by employers, contractors, and enforcement agencies.

It is clear that migrant farmworkers’ agency is limited in important ways, making their participation in farm work a testament to the power of extreme poverty, exploitative immigration policy, and racial labor hierarchies, rather than an endorsement of the industry’s practices. Labor camps residents’ ongoing occupancy and meaningful but minor improvements do not excuse substandard housing conditions, an insight that undermines rationalizations like that of the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange: ‘It defies logic that our workforce would return every year if we did not treat them fairly.’

Farmworkers exercise agency by struggling to shape low-wages and substandard housing into a life of security and dignity, but always at the expense of the privations and injuries they endure in their housing and employment. Medical anthropologist Seth Holmes’ research with Triqui migrant farmworkers documented a similar, uneasy calculus of ‘immense suffering’ in farm wage labor and ‘death by the unequal, “free market,”’ on the other hand. Whether as an invisible hand or a farm hand, violence of various forms shapes the limited options that exist for migrant farmworkers.

Farmworkers harvesting sweet potatoes in southern Virginia

Analogous examples of tenant resistance to substandard housing demonstrate the possible transformative power of informal adaptations, even as they highlight the limitations imposed on many migrant farmworkers by current legal structures. Political scientist Edward Goetz outlined a decades-long history of tenant adaptations to de-facto demolition among deteriorating and neglected public housing projects in the U.S., a history that blurs the lines between ‘putting up with’ one’s housing and transforming it. He summarized that residents ‘did not passively acquiesce to the deteriorating conditions around them. On the contrary, they went to great lengths to make up for the deficiencies of design, construction, and management that shaped their living environment.’ However, they secured these victories in policy and juridical precedent through means not directly available to many migrant farmworkers, namely rent strikes (which are impossible for those in no-cost, employer-provided housing) and lawsuits against government authorities funding their housing. Nonetheless, these relatively successful examples of tenant resistance show that in a modified legal and regulatory environment, transformative agency could be possible through strategic community organizing and self-advocacy.

For those living in, studying, and working to change these labor camp conditions, a focus on the agency of migrant farmworkers and their families provides a window onto the multiplicity of scales, actors, relations, and locations that intersect in North Carolina’s farm labor camps. By understanding the form, content, and context of these agentive acts within ‘putting up with it,’ we begin to illuminate how the camps remain somewhat livable in the face of underfunded enforcement and unenforced policy; how immigration and farm labor structures divest labor camp residents of the ability to positively and meaningfully shape their housing environments; and how migrant farmworkers and families make decisions surrounding wages and well-being, economic necessity and human dignity.

Bennett Heine recently completed an MA in the Social Anthropology of the Global Economy at the University of Sussex.

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