I am the daughter of single farmworker mother. I began working in the fields when I was 8, selling food with my mom on the weekends and summers. When I turned 13, I started to work with my friends from middle school, picking crops like berries, tobacco, bell peppers and tomatoes.
In the fields, no one cared that I was young or undocumented because it meant that they could pay me less. They paid me based on how much I picked – $2.50 for a bucket of blueberries or sometimes only $15 for 10 hours of work. So I moved to the packing sheds to make the $7.25 minimum wage, but conditions there turned out to be even worse, requiring 10 hours of work without breaks.
Worse still, it was there that I realized the grower was stealing my wages. When I reported the wage theft to my boss, he retaliated and eventually fired me. I turned to the N.C. Department of Labor for help, but the first thing they asked for was something I didn’t have to give – a Social Security number.
Last year, I met a representative of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee through which farmworkers are working in union to change the agricultural industry. I realized that I was stuck in a system that marginalizes hard-working and respectful people who have no choice but to work with what we’re given. Justice in the fields is not possible until we can monitor and report abuses ourselves without fear of retaliation.
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For this reason, FLOC has been fighting to win collective bargaining agreements designed by workers themselves that raise salaries, provide an accessible grievance procedure and destroy the culture of fear that for centuries has kept farmworkers toiling in silent exploitation.
Farmworkers know well what needs to be changed to make the workplace safe and fair and how those changes can be implemented. By coming together in union, our voices are amplified and growers have to listen. There is strength in numbers, but there is power in union. When we come together, we can see the connections between fields and factories, between packing sheds and call centers, between working people everywhere who all want the chance to enjoy the fruits of our labor.
Sintia Castillo is a farmworker and member organizer of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee in Mount Olive.
What: News conference and memorial service to honor the 128 workers who died on the job in North Carolina in 2014 and to call for the N.C. Department of Labor to do more to prevent workplace injuries and fatalities
When: 10 a.m. Thursday
Where: Bicentennial Mall, across from the legislative building, 16 W. Jones St., Raleigh