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.'
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The murder of Santiago Rafael Cruz, who was born in Oaxaca and had worked the tobacco fields in North Carolina with Benavides before moving to Monterrey in 2007 to help expand union activities, while shocking, didn't come out of nowhere. The offices had been robbed twice – their computers and all members' contact information on it – and their staff workers have received anonymous death threats.Skip to next paragraph
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The federal government has installed closed-circuit cameras, and gave the two staff members cellphones that dial directly to the attorney general and investigative police in an emergency. They also pay for police to cruise past their offices three or four times a day.
Police in Monterrey charged a man they say confessed to the murder, and have dismissed Cruz's union work as a motive. But union officials are pressing for further investigations. They say they believe a flurry of meetings they held this spring throughout Mexico teaching Mexicans how not to fall prey to bribes could have been the motive.
"When you are down there trying to fight corruption, you are fighting people with the money," Velasquez says.
For now, however, FLOC's reach is limited. While they have made a difference for the 7,000 members they claim in Mexico, their agreement is only in North Carolina, and, unless renewed, it could expire next year. Observers say that the model could be repeated among other unions, and even other countries, but that for now it's a new idea.
FLOC is now focusing on similar agreements with growers in Kansas, Kentucky, Virginia, and Michigan. They are also considering opening an office in Nuevo Laredo, where many visas are processed. In addition, they have formed committees in small Mexican towns to help with outreach.
Still, while many groups help workers with legal and health rights, few have addressed abuses of recruitment at home. "FLOC is a very small organization, but they are trying to change [the system] mightily," says Cindy Hahamovitch, an expert on guest-worker programs at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. "They turned guest workers into union members. That had never happened before."
President Bush has worked hard to expand the guest-worker program, lauding it in his 2007 State of the Union address. Yet if the US program were to expand, observers worry there will be little oversight. The Southern Poverty Law Center came out with a report recently calling for a complete overhaul of the guest-worker program if it is to be expanded, because of safety violations, wage abuses, and recruitment abuses.
"I don't think many are aware of how these things work at the ground level," says Don Villarejo, California Institute for Rural Studies.
"Imagine how I felt," says Mr. Hernandez. When scammed, he not only lost the $700 fee; he missed the 2005 US agricultural season, settling for a daily wage he makes in an hour in the US. Hardest was the $1,500 loan he took out at 20 percent interest. "I had $1,500 in debt and no means to pay it off. I spent months just paying interest."
He never considered crossing illegally into the US because he says he has far too much to lose. But it was mighty tempting, he adds, as he follows the crowd toward the buses that will take them across the border, a grin on his face.