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Unions fight against abuse of migrant laborers

Mexican and US organizers are risking their lives to prevent guest workers from being swindled by unscrupulous 'recruiters.'

By Staff writer / June 11, 2007

Nuevo Laredo, Mexico

Alberto Hernandez had picked tobacco in the US for nearly a decade, and even he was easily sucked into the scam: an eight-month contract, and a $9-an-hour job in the US – visa and transportation included – all for $700 up front.

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When he came home to his wife and three children that day, after the bus to take him to the US never showed up, his wife burst into tears.

Two years later, he awaits a 36-hour bus journey from Nuevo Laredo along the US-Mexico border to the tobacco fields of North Carolina, where he'll work for the next five months. This time he has paid not a single fee nor left his wife with any debt.

The difference is due to new efforts by leaders in Mexico, through the Ohio-based Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC), to protect migrant laborers from the thousands of unscrupulous recruiters who prey on them as they try to navigate the guest-worker program to earn a living in the US. But interfering in the recruiters' lucrative trade is proving difficult – and deadly.

In April, a union organizer was tortured and murdered in the union's Monterrey office.

FLOC has vowed to fight on and expand its reach throughout Mexico – especially if an overhaul of US immigration laws, which was reintroduced to US Senate debate last week, augments the numbers of guest workers heading to the US – and, thus, the abuse at the hands of recruiters.

"We can't stop this now, it's just going to go further and further," says Castulo Benavides, the director of FLOC in Mexico. "If they kill me, someone else will take my place, and this will keep moving forward."

How guest workers get swindled

For over 60 years, Mexicans have crossed the border legally each year, to harvest tobacco in North Carolina, extract meat from crabs in Maryland, pick blueberries in Maine, among other menial jobs. In 2006, some 37,000 workers got visas to carry out agriculture and other low-skill labor. More than three-fourths come from Mexico.

Most US growers rely on private agencies to recruit guest workers under the H2A agriculture and H2B nonagriculture programs, representing tens of millions of dollars, according to a recent report by the Southern Law Poverty Center. Some recruiters are legitimate. Others fan across countries like Mexico, charging prices often starting at $600, about six months' worth of earnings for many laborers.

FLOC opened its office in Mexico in 2005, a year after winning a historic agreement with the North Carolina Growers Association that temporarily puts the burden of recruitment fees and visa costs onto employers in that state, not on the workers heading there.

"The enormous corruption was the first thing we discovered," says Baldemor Velasquez, FLOC's president in Ohio. "People are desperate. They will pay."

But not any more.

Organizers risk lives to prevent abuse

Dozens of men stand under trees in a run-down park in front of a church in Nuevo Laredo. Mr. Benavides circulates among clusters of men and hands them union brochures detailing their rights. Joe Mueller, a Christian Peacemaker, stands in the background, monitoring Benavides's movements in light of current threats against the union.