The N.C. Harm Reduction Coalition recently launched a new outreach program for Hispanic farm workers and day laborers, a group at high risk for infectious disease. Due to the grueling physical requirements of their jobs, many migrant workers inject vitamins for strength, as well as pain relievers. The absence of women (80% of farm workers are men) creates a demand for sex workers, and in case of infection, there is little to no medical care available due to the legal status of many migrant workers.
Fermin is a migrant worker from Guatemala. In 2005 he made the difficult decision to leave his wife and five children to come to North Carolina in search of work. He crossed at the Arizona border after 45 days travel, 15 in the desert with no food or water.
“Twenty-five people crossed with me,” he says. “We couldn’t bring food because it would attract bugs and wild animals. We had water bottles, but to make the water last two weeks we could only wet our lips when we were thirsty. The days were so hot in the desert that people got dizzy and had to be carried, but the nights were freezing. We had no blankets; we slept wrapped in trash bags and huddled together to keep warm.”
Fermin speaks often of how much he misses his wife and family, and how difficult it was to leave them behind, even as he knows that the money he sends them is putting his children through school and affording them a life he never had. To make money, Fermin waits at a gas station in Carrboro with other day laborers, hoping for a truck to drive by and offer a few hours work. The main problem, Fermin explains, is that because of their legal status, many employers take advantage of day laborers.
“About 20% of the jobs we get we are never paid for,” says Fermin. “A couple months ago I worked for a roofing company. That’s a tough job, ripping shingles off the roof; my back and body were so sore, but I was excited because they’d offered a lot of money. Then when I came to collect at the end of the week, the company had left.”
The new outreach program at NCHRC educates migrant workers on risky behaviors that can transmit disease. For example, most day laborers keep condoms in their wallets where heat and pressure can weaken the latex and lead to breakage. Other practices, such as using two condoms at a time and lubricating with Vaseline, are common among the workers. Through harm reduction outreach and education, Fermin and other laborers have learned proper condom care and use, such as storing condoms in a cool, dry place and to use only one condom at a time with a water-based lubricant. To prevent disease transmission through drug use, the workers are taught to use a new syringe for each injection to avoid disease exposure and abscesses and to clean dirty needles with bleach if a clean needle cannot be found. This helps reduce the spread of HIV, hepatitis B & C and other blood boorne diseases amongst the migrant workers and their syringe sharing and sexual partners.
Speaking on harm reduction, Fermin says he’s grateful to the outreach offered by the N.C. Harm Reduction Coalition. “I try to avoid activities that put me at risk, but a lot of guys here don’t know much about HIV, for example, and how you can get it. Harm reduction programs are helpful to educate people so they won’t get infected.”
Fermin plans to keep himself protected from infectious disease and to return to his family in Guatemala at the end of this year.
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