Wednesday, September 12, 2012

My Memorable Visit with FLOC

September 12, 2012

At its meeting in August of 2012, the AFL-CIO Committee on Civil & Human Rights was given a presentation from the committee’s chairperson, AFL-CIO Executive Vice President Arlene Holt-Baker, on her recent trip to meet with the immigrant farm workers in North Carolina.  Sister Holt-Baker had been invited to visit the workers by Baldemar Velasquez, the President of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC).  I, along with the other members of the AFL-CIO Executive Council, was invited by Brother Velasquez to travel to North Carolina to meet with the immigrant workers.  I proudly accepted, and I made the trip late last month.

IFPTE and FLOC don’t have many opportunities for interchange.  However, I thought it was important for me to make the trip for two reasons.

First, we can learn much from this organization.  Although FLOC is a small and relatively poor national union, through massive member mobilization and by following some rather ingenious strategies, the organization has shown to have more muscle than one might expect.  By raising public awareness on their issues, they have put unexpected power into their struggles, and their union has won some remarkable victories in the past few years.

Secondly, and more importantly, theirs is a battle for basic human rights.  Their struggle is not strictly about immigration.  It’s about whether we, as unionists, as Americans, as fellow humans, will agree to the heartless treatment of others.  It’s about whether we will stand by silently, while other people on American soil are forced to endure inhumane treatment by those who so callously wield power over them.

FLOC President Velasquez started my trip with an extensive briefing, during which he freely answered all of my questions.

Much of our discussion centered on his internal strategies, and for the sake of discretion, I won’t divulge any of that here.

To my question regarding the workers’ legal status as immigrants, Mr. Velasquez said that all of the workers we would meet are undocumented.  Mr. Velasquez explained that it’s nearly impossible to gain legal entry into the US as a farm worker.  Those few who do get working visas are only permitted to do so to provide the farm owners with a semblance of legal hiring practice, and the handful of employees who are documented immigrants serve as supervisors over the actual workers.

When I asked why immigrants don’t try to enter the US legally, Mr. Velasquez explained that such a thing is all but impossible.  In order to gain a working visa or a “green card,” foreign workers need to have an employer-sponsor, and the farm owners have no interest in sponsoring workers to whom they would be required to pay a minimum wage.  Instead, the owners rely on a well-funded and well-organized recruitment/smuggling ring that operates by extracting a fee from each immigrant (money which is acquired by a loan from the ring itself) and then, the workers are shipped to various parts of the country to work as fruit & vegetable pickers.  In those rare instances in which a worker has a passport, the document is often seized by the employer and kept until the worker has fulfilled his/her obligation.  In other words, the worker is prevented from quitting.

I asked why the undocumented workers don’t try to save enough money to go back home, and then, come back to the US legally.  Mr. Velasquez explained that such a thing is not possible.  In order to apply for a working visa, a prospective immigrant must declare whether he or she has ever entered the US illegally.  A “yes” answer brings an automatic and permanent denial of a working visa along with any hope of legal re-entry into the US.  As to the prospect of saving any money earned, Mr. Velasquez told me the workers are paid such meager wages that saving even a portion of it was simply ridiculous.

When I asked whether the farm owners know their entire workforce of farm laborers was undocumented, Mr. Velasquez laughed as he assured me that, of course, they know.  That’s the way the farm owners can get around any wage and hour laws, he explained.  The farm owners depend on their workforce being undocumented, and the workers’ substandard pay, along with the absence of any benefits, is an essential element of the farm owner’s profits.  Mr. Velasquez added with a laugh, “Besides, a lot of people would object to paying double for a jar of pickles just to ensure the workers get paid the minimum wage.”

As a side note, Mr. Velasquez told me that FICA tax is withheld from the workers’ pay, however, since the workers are undocumented, they don’t have valid US Social Security numbers.  So, the workers simply give fake numbers.  It’s a sad but running joke that the undocumented workers are supporting the Social Security benefits of American workers, while the undocumented workers have no chance of receiving any benefits themselves.

We discussed the value of the workers’ membership in FLOC.  First and foremost, when a union has a roster of the workers, the union demands that the workers are paid minimum wage and receive fair treatment consistent with prevailing law.  Union members have the right to file grievances against their employer.  These grievances often involve workers being shorted their rightful pay, especially when the workers are paid by the count of produce picked in lieu of being paid a set amount of money per hour.

There is no protection against employer retaliation for workers who are deemed troublesome because of their union activity.  In fact, there are NO laws that govern farm workers’ rights.  Therefore, the union has no regulatory body to which the union or the workers can file appeals or unfair labor practice charges.

At the Work Camps

When the day is done, the workers are sent to their work camps (I can hardly believe I’m using such a despicable term), where they eat, sleep, bathe, and live while they are employed on any given farm.  Mr. Velasquez and I, along with some staff representatives of FLOC and some other worker advocates visited a few of the work camps.  (We didn’t want to get in the workers’ way while they were picking produce, so we waited till they had finished their work for the day.)

We were lucky enough to be there when the temperature was only around 90.  But this was central North Carolina, and the temperature regularly swelters in the 100’s.

In short, each complex was filthy and disgusting.  The grounds were a mixture of rutted and uneven rocks, stones, and weeds.  Gnats and flies were so thick, we had to walk with our mouths closed, and all of us were continuously swatting and waving our hands in front of our faces – as though that would do any good.  Of course, the ever-present haze of flying bugs was always denser nearer to where the workers had to cook and eat their meals.  Whatever else the workers ate, I have no doubt they couldn’t help but consume some insects with their food.

The work camps are made of rows of shacks that encircle a stony yard.  The shacks rest on concrete slabs.  The crude buildings are made of bare wood with bare pipe in the few buildings that have running water (the kitchens, the laundry rooms, and the bathrooms are all located in the same buildings).  A lone fifty-gallon water heater is used to accommodate up to 100 people, who all need to bathe, wash their clothes, and eat in the same complex.  When the hot water runs out, the workers simply have to shower and do their laundry in cold water.  There is no running water in any of the shacks used for sleeping.

We arrived in time to find most of the workers had just washed after the day’s work.  They were all incredibly friendly and in good spirits, although none of them could hide the fact that they were dog-tired.  At this point in their day, the simple act of sitting down was a joyous experience.

The workers all knew who Baldemar Velasquez was.  If they didn’t know him, they’d all obviously heard of him, and they accepted him like he was a saint.

I refrained from waving the haze of bugs away from my face while I was talking with the workers, because I didn’t want to appear perturbed by such a minor inconvenience in the face of such appalling hardship.  At the same time, I couldn’t help but think of how my own family reacts when there’s a single fly or a moth in the house.

The workers all welcomed us and freely spoke with us.  We were careful not to take too many pictures of them without their approval, and we were told beforehand (by the FLOC staffers) not to take photographs of any of the children.

I sat and spoke with a worker named C for a few minutes.  Like all the other workers around him, C is a slightly built man.  He is small and wiry, without an ounce of fat on him.  As I sat down, C glanced at the FLOC staffers, and I assume they nodded that it was safe to talk with me.  (The FLOC staffers served as our interpreters.)  C said he was doing fine, except that he was incredibly tired.

They’d picked sweet potatoes that day, and C lamented that it was a lot harder than picking oranges in Florida.

“Why?”  I asked.  “Because of the strain on your back from bending down?”

“No.  It’s because we have to pick while running the entire day.”

It was explained to me that with certain produce, like sweet potatoes, the workers are paid nothing per hour.  Instead, their pay is based on the number of buckets of vegetables they pick.  The vegetables must be ripe and the skin cannot be damaged, so the workers need to pay attention as their fingers sift through the plants.  When a worker turns in a full bucket to the supervisors waiting in the back of the truck, the worker is given a ticket.  His/her daily pay is then based on the number of tickets amassed by day’s end.

I asked how much a worker receives for each sweet potato.  The remittance varies, but it’s only a few cents.  The price is higher if the workers are unionized.

I asked C if he planned to pick oranges in Florida when the season is right.  He said he did, but not until the work in North Carolina is done.  I asked him how he knew about the picking in Florida or where the next bit of work might be.  He didn’t seem to know how to answer.  He only said that the word got around.

He said it’s hard to get to Florida because the police are always on the watch for undocumented immigrants.  States like Georgia and Alabama have laws similar to Arizona’s, where immigrants can be apprehended simply for appearing to be undocumented workers.

The farm owners who freely and openly exploit the undocumented workers are never arrested.  Although the farm owners knowingly violate US wage and hour laws (to say nothing of the blatant disregard for common decency and humanity), the owners are never brought to justice.  Nor are the recruiters and the smugglers.  Instead, only the workers, who are forced to toil, as indentured servants, are the ones treated as criminals.

I asked C if he prefers working in Florida.  He said, no, he’d prefer to do construction work, and he wanted to go to Texas, but there isn’t much construction laborer work there right now.  He said he’s got a wife and three daughters living there, and he’d like to see them again soon.  His eyes brightened at the thought, but then, they watered up on him.

We switched the subject and went back to discussing North Carolina.  C is well aware that his living and working conditions are horrible.  He did his best to shrug it off.  I asked him what happens when he gets sick; on the days he can’t work.  He thought it about the question and answered with a laugh, “I can’t let myself get sick.”

We met with a worker named J.  J had sliced his foot earlier in the day, and he’d tried to continue working on it, but it got too painful, and he had to leave the fields after only a half-day.  He seemed furious with himself for getting injured and needing to miss a half day’s work.  (I didn’t ask how he was transported back to the work camp in the middle of the day or what he’d eaten, having missed lunch in the field.)  One of the FLOC staffers checked J’s injured foot.  There was nothing resembling medical supplies anywhere in the camp.  J said he’d found some ointment (that was intended for insect bites), and he’d applied some of that to his sliced foot.  The cut didn’t appear to be too deep, but J seemed to be a lot of pain and had a hard time standing on his injured foot.

The inside of the shacks used as living quarters are about 12’ x 16’.  These were the ones we saw.  There are smaller shacks, but they were locked, so we didn’t see the insides.  The walls of the shacks are bare, except for partial sheets of particle-board that cover random portions of the wall.  There are no light fixtures.  The floors are concrete.  The unshaded windows are about eight feet off the floor, so while they provide light, the only thing that can be seen through them is the sky.

The workers are provided a cot with a bare mattress.  No blankets, sheets, or pillows.  A wooden cabinet, about a foot high and a foot deep and about three feet wide hangs above each cot.  Everything in life that the worker owns is stored in his or her cabinet.  When we were at the camps, there were six cots in each shack, but when picking season is at its peak (and when the weather is hottest), as many as ten workers reside in each shack.

We visited other shacks and other work camps.  The stories were all similar.

Outside of the work camps were signs telling us that trespassers were not allowed on the property.  We ignored the signs – as did the clouds of gnats and flies.

The bathrooms were too disgusting for the written word to fully describe.  Some pictures of the filthy conditions can be found on my Flickr site.

I apologize for the poor quality.  The pics were taken with my phone.  Here are some better ones that were taken by Ron Carver – a photographer and an organizer with a significant amount of talent.

On the way out of the last camp, we stopped in a tobacco field.  Mr. Velasquez had me pick a couple of ripe leaves from some plants.  The leaves were covered with a filmy substance, and when Mr. Velasquez saw me rub at the stickiness on my fingertips, he explained that the stuff on my hands was tar from the tobacco.  He said that after a day of picking tobacco, a worker’s hands and clothes will be completely black from the tobacco tar.  The clothes cannot be worn again until they’re washed, or the tar will cause the worker to become violently ill.

When I rubbed the stickiness between my fingers and thumb, one of the FLOC staffers warned me not to touch my face until I had washed my hands.

“And whatever you do,” he quickly added, “don’t rub your eyes.”

I thought of a worker in 100-degree weather, toiling under the hot sun.  And I thought of a person’s normal reaction when sweat runs into the eyes.

Two of the people who accompanied us on the trip were young workers from the Japanese and the Taiwanese embassies.  Both repeatedly exclaimed their horror and their near-disbelief that such deplorable living conditions exist in 21st century America.

At the moment, I don’t know what else to do about the outrage I feel, except to tell as many people as I can about what I saw and learned in North Carolina.