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Looking for Better Life, Migrant Workers Lead Difficult Lives

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GREENE COUNTY — In Greene County, a ramshackle house looks deserted. No one is home, but people do live there -- 15 Hispanic men who work in the fields all day and come home to filthy conditions at night.

Farmworker resource coordinator Steve Davis walks through the house -- its pungent odors, vermin and trash are disgusting.

"It's filthy," Davis says. "There just shouldn't be anybody living in these conditions. Obviously, some of it is the workers aren't cleaning up behind themselves. It's not all their fault, though. They've got the trash in the trash can, but it's not like there's anywhere for them to take it."

Regina Luginbuhl gets the picture. She works for theN.C. Department of Labor, in charge of inspecting housing for migrant workers.

She groans while looking at videotape of the inside of the house, convinced that an inspector must be sent to investigate.

Davis says there is something wrong with the system.

"Too few people to inspect so many houses. Unless they get complaints, they're not going to know that this stuff is going on," he says.

The state has four full-time inspectors and four others who work during the growing season. They inspect 1,600 houses and migrant camps across the state.

Agriculture is North Carolina's number-one industry, but about 60 percent of farmworkers live in poverty. The crops they harvest account for about $2 billion in sales each year, but half of the workers earn less than $5,000 a year.

Almost none of the workers receive health insurance. They are among the lowest-paid workers in the country, working in one of the most hazardous occupations.

In one Greene County migrant camp, 65 men, one woman and one child live in a barrack-style building. The woman's husband works in the field

The building has plywood walls and a concrete floor -- much better than what the workers would have in Mexico.

The woman in the camp is two-months pregnant. She probably prepares three meals each day for the men while watching her 2-year-old daughter -- all by herself.

The men's bathroom offers no privacy -- public showers and toilets lined up in a row.

The state requirements for camps: one toilet for every 15 people and one shower for every 10. As bad as it is for migrant workers in the United States, most probably would not trade their current situation for the one they left behind, Luginbuhl says.

Migrant workers are a vital part of the state's economy, making more than they ever could in Mexico. Still, what is more somehow seems less.

As promised, the Department of Labor did send out investigators after seeing WRAL's video of the house. The inspectors say they found decent conditions and did not issue any citations. But outreach workers say conditions have not improved and even more people are now living there. What did you think about this story?Send us feedback.