Julio Cesar Guerrero came north from Mexico in the spring of 2001 as a temporary contract worker. Recruited by Manpower of the Americas, he was sent to North Carolina, where he began working on the tobacco farm of Anthony Smith. After a few weeks, his fingers started to hurt, and then, one by one, his fingernails began falling off. Although Smith told him he couldn’t see a doctor, he went anyway. The doctor said his problem was possibly caused by working without gloves in fields sprayed with pesticides. So Guerrero, who was employed through the H2-A federal guest worker program, called Legal Aid of North Carolina. But Smith warned him not to talk with legal workers.
Guerrero returned to Mexico at the end of the season. The next year, when he tried to get another job, he found his name on a blacklist maintained by MOA and the North Carolina Growers Association (NCGA). Legal Aid protested, and as a result, Guerrero was sent to the United States again. That year, he worked for grower Rodney Jackson, who kept the workers’ drinking water on a moving truck in the fields, forcing them to run after it with their mouths under the spigot. When Guerrero filed a complaint with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, Jackson gave a warning notice and asked him to sign it. When Guerrero refused, Jackson fired him. A foreman took him to the bus station, telling him to go back to Mexico. Again Legal Aid intervened and got him assigned to another grower. Soon a growers’ association representative gave Guerrero another warning notice, which he again refused to sign.
When the 2003 season began, Guerrero tried once more to sign up with MOA, but the recruiter told him that he’d already been given a second chance. Since he’d continued to make complaints, his name stayed on the blacklist.
Guerrero had had enough. In 2004 he became a plaintiff in a racketeering suit filed on April 13 in Wake County Superior Court, by Legal Aid of North Carolina, charging the NCGA with maintaining an illegal blacklist.
While Guerrero’s case winds its way through the courts, proposals for setting up new temporary contract-worker programs, in industries far beyond agriculture, are proliferating. In fact, such schemes are part of most immigration reform proposals introduced into Congress this year. Their defenders argue that increasing labor protections can put a stop to abuses, while insuring that employers get the labor they want. However, Guerrero’s experience, and that of thousands of workers like him, raises serious doubts that these programs can effectively safeguard workers’ rights.
Andrew McGuffin, staff attorney for Legal Aid of North Carolina, cautions, “the problem isn’t that we don’t have worker protection laws. It’s that with guest workers they’re not enforced, and when workers try to use these laws, they’re blacklisted.”
The growers, through NCGA, and Legal Aid have been squaring off for years. The growers’ handbook warns workers not to talk to Legal Aid staff, calling them “enemies of the H2-A program” who are “trying to eliminate your job.” The handbook also warns workers that any effort to “deliberately restrict production” or to “work slowly” will result in discipline or termination. Strikes or slowdowns are prohibited.
Last September a foreman for grower Chester Pilson informed guest worker Juan Villarreal Abundiz that there was no more work for him because he’d talked with Legal Aid, and an NCGA rep told him he’d probably be denied a job the following season. Villarreal was brought to the association office in Vass, North Carolina–a huge barn with a balcony along one side. As 200 workers gathered below, a foreman named Santos and an NCGA employee addressed them from the balcony, instructing them to take Legal Aid’s pink “know your rights” booklets out of their luggage and throw them in a trash can in the middle of the floor. According to Villarreal, NCGA head Stan Eury and his assistants gave him a paper he couldn’t read and told him if he didn’t sign it, he’d have to pay his own bus fare back to Mexico. Villarreal signed.