On April 9 Santiago Rafael Cruz, a labor organizer for the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC), was found beaten to death in the union's office in Monterrey, Mexico. The 29-year-old former farmworker had spent his days meeting with Mexicans who planned to travel to the United States as temporary laborers, educating them about their rights.
More than 40,000 guest workers from Mexico and other foreign countries work legally on American farms each year under a government program known as H2A. While the jobs can provide valuable income for workers and their families, advocates have recently filed dozens of lawsuits charging farmers and labor contractors with abuses ranging from failing to pay minimum wage to firing employees when they became injured.
In North Carolina, where FLOC represents laborers in the tobacco and cucumber industries, the union blames poor working conditions for the heat-exposure deaths of nine guest workers, not all of whom were union members, in the past two years. One contracting company allegedly imprisoned several Thai workers in condemned motels for weeks in 2005, confiscating their passports, according to court documents. The workers, who had each paid about $11,500 in recruiting fees and illegal transportation costs to come to the United States, were forced to work without pay, the lawsuit claims.
Last year FLOC supported a lawsuit that resulted in a federal court ruling that prohibited most North Carolina growers and their recruiting agencies from charging guest workers such visa and transportation fees. It is the only United States union with an office in Monterrey, where thousands of Mexicans converge each year to apply for the coveted work visas. Union leaders said the office has been the target of several suspicious break-ins since it opened in 2005.
"Our organizers have been threatened by labor recruiters," said Leticia Zavala, FLOC's vice president. "The office has been broken into many times when nothing was stolen--things were just vandalized. But we never thought it would come to this."
A spokesperson for the state police force investigating the murder said that "a fight between unions" in the union was the most likely motive. But union president Baldemar Velásquez dismissed that theory as "ludicrous."
"This was a targeted act of intimidation to discourage us from doing work against all the corruption in the labor recruitment business in Mexico," Velásquez said. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights recently ordered the Mexican government to provide protection for the union's remaining staff members in Mexico. Democratic Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur, whose Ohio district includes FLOC's headquarters, praised the decision.
Democratic Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur, whose Ohio district includes FLOC's headquarters, endorsed the petition. She said the attack on Cruz showed the weakness of migrant labor protections under the North American Free Trade Agreement.
"Here you have a situation where ordinary people are fighting an extraordinary battle to enforce labor standards on the continent," she said. "Their lives are at risk and there is no legal system behind them."
Cruz, a small man with a ready smile who loved salsa dancing and Italian opera, came to the Monterrey office a month ago after he was deported from the United States. Originally from Oaxaca, he had worked harvesting tomatoes and cucumbers in Ohio before becoming an organizer with FLOC in 2003.
"He was so lively and so strong," said Zavala. "Even before working for FLOC he was always volunteering. He lifted so many programs up from scratch."
Two weeks before his death, Cruz sat in his one-room office chatting with me and two brothers who had stopped by to ask for help. One of the brothers had injured himself in the chest while working for a landscaping company in Ohio. His employer, he complained, was refusing to pay his medical bills. Cruz gave them phone numbers of agencies to call in the United States.
"Sometimes it makes me feel a little desperate, the way the farmers treat [the workers] like animals," he said later. "I tell them, 'If it's too hot, if you feel bad, get out of the fields. If someone says something to you, call the union.' This is our mentality, to organize to improve their lives. It's hard work, but I like it."