Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Migrant workers need respect as well as basic civil rights

(Here is a first report from my travels thus far this summer across the South. The travels started in Mamou, La., where the tensions from the BP oil spill are clearly evident among the oil rig workers who live in south Louisiana. They've even put an edge on the Saturday morning partyers at the famous Cajun haunt, Fred's Lounge. One local denizen barked this at my daughter: "Tell people where you came from that we don't need their help down here. We can handle this ourselves."

More recently, I traveled across the South's northern rim, to the mountainous point where Tennessee, Virgina, and North Carolina meet, and finally to the tobacco fields of central North Carolina, from which I filed the column below. Next I'll be heading to Florida, where I hope to speak with activists from the Coalition of Immokalee Workers.)

In the photo above and to the left, you see Diego Reyes Jr. (on the left) and Diego Reyes Sr. (on the right) in the latter's trailer, described in the column below.

SANFORD, N.C. – Getting to the rusted-out trailer that Diego Reyes Sr. and five other Latino workers call home between June and November of each year was no simple task.

I grew up in North Carolina’s tobacco country, but I’d never been here. Taking a right turn off Barbecue Church Road, Reyes and his son Diego Reyes Jr. led me down a rutted, one-way dirt road, past corn fields and bean fields, and along the narrow levee of a lonely pond until we reached it, between a field and a thicket of woods.

They invited me inside, where several fans hummed noisily against the summer heat. Reyes Sr., 45, speaks no English, but he made sure his 21-year-old son learned it, and now Junior is a seminarian who works with the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC), devoting his life to improving the lot of migrant workers who toil long hours for minimal wages with little or no protection from exploitation, live in substandard housing, and face daily discrimination.

“It’s not only Sanford, but everywhere, all this propaganda against immigrants,” Reyes Jr. said. “People feel they’re stealing their jobs, that immigrants are bad people, drug mules, and criminals. It dehumanizes people.”

He pointed to the Arizona law that allows the police to stop immigrants on the street without provocation and demand their papers. Now politicians in Mississippi, despite its long and tawdry history of ill treatment of minorities, want the state to adopt such a law.

“It’s not the stealing of jobs” that brought migrants here, Reyes Jr. insists. “The people came here because of the policies the U.S. implemented in the world.”

Reyes Sr., whose dark, sunburned skin and muscular arms attest to his years in the fields. is living proof of the impact of those policies.

The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) of 1994 allowed the United States to flood Mexico with subsidized corn that at times sold for 30 percent below the cost of production. More than two million Mexican farmers lost their jobs as a result. Reyes Sr. was one of them, and he, like so many others, had to go north to find work to support his wife and 11 children.

Every year, as part of the H2A guest worker program, he comes to harvest tobacco, beans and corn.

Farm workers need “respect,” Reyes Sr. said. Veterans like himself work for years and help train younger workers but earn the same as someone who has just arrived, $7.25 an hour. That’s just one of many reasons why he and others in North Carolina and elsewhere have joined FLOC, which has a long record of success in winning contracts with major corporations and which is now battling the Winston-Salem-based R.J. Reynolds Tobacco company to get it to recognize the need to improve the lives of both farmers and workers.

“When the grower sees you are a union member, they respect you more,” Reyes Sr. said. “They give you breaks—some workers get no breaks during the day. You get better treatment, more respect.”

Respect for workers, particularly immigrants, can be a hard commodity to find. Witness the hundreds at Howard Industries in Laurel who were arrested in August 2008 and held in a Louisiana camp for weeks without formal charges or the ability to see an attorney.

The Rev. Carlton Eversley of Winston-Salem, an African-American activist who sees immigrant rights as a civil rights issue, said he’ll never forget the migrant labor camp in Wilson, N.C., that he and other religious leaders visited in late 2009. “It was mind-boggling, 125 guys in wooden barracks, seven guys in a room with no windows, no ventilation, no linen, no bed sheets, no closets, very hot, very unsanitary, swarms of gnats. … You felt like you were leaving the United States and going to some kind of Third World situation.”

I had similar thoughts in the Reyes’ trailer, but what struck me even more was the Southern hospitality I found. As I left, Reyes Sr. motioned me over to a table by the woods. Under it were a half-dozen or more watermelons and cantaloupes. “Take one,” he said, and I picked a watermelon out. “Take another,” he insisted, “and some cantaloupes, too.” I declined. “This is enough,” I said, thanking him as I waved goodbye.

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