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A day in the life of a FLOC organizer

by Keith Barber

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Frank Vel’squezended the call onhis cell phone andbreathed a heavysigh. He lookedacross the tableat Diego, anotherstaff memberfrom the FarmLabor OrganizingCommittee’s fieldoffice, and spoke inSpanish in a tonethat expressed pureexasperation. Diegothen turned to meand translated what Frank had said.“Angel,” an undocumented tobaccofarmworker, had informed Frankthat the labor camp where he andco-worker “Eduardo” had residedfor five weeks had been cleared ofimmigrant workers. Thirty tobaccoworkers had allegedly been forced tolive inside three dilapidated mobilehomes in a makeshift trailer park onthe outskirts of Goldsboro. Crew bossJose Vel’squez had moved those30 workers to a different location,Angel said. Word of the move camedirectly from one of Angel’s formercolleagues still living inside thecamp. Frank Vel’squez pushed the plateof fajitas away. He no longer had anappetite.I peered outside the window ofla Cuarta Restaurant, a convertedmobile home, and could see Angeland Eduardo standing in the parkinglot of la Tienda on the oppositeside of US Highway 117. They werewaiting for a ride from Angel’s cousinin the afternoon heat. A day thathad seemed to hold the promiseof justice for Angel and Eduardoended abruptly, with yet anotherdisappointment and even morefrustration for FLOC. Less than an hour prior toAngel’s call, Frank Vel’squez andI had spoken directly with ReginaLuginbuhl, bureau chief at the NCDepartment of Labor. We bothdescribed for Luginbuhl the livingconditions that we had seen forourselves earlier that day at themakeshift trailer park adjacent tothe old Coastal Plains Cotton Gin offHighway 581 outside Goldsboro.We related to Luginbuhl thetestimony of Angel and Eduardo,who said they came forward totell their story because they feltthey needed FLOC’s protection.Angel and Eduardo said theyhad confronted crew leader JoseVel’squez after he refused topay them their wages. Vel’squezthreatened their lives, they said, andthey left the camp. Angel said theyhoped that FLOC could stop a manlike Jose Vel’squez from abusingtheir fellow workers. Angel describedhorrific living conditions: 30 peoplesleeping on the floor of threetrailers with no beds or bedding; noworking appliances; one shower; nooperating toilets; no way for workersto wash their clothes. The workerswere being treated like animals,Angel said. As if that wasn’t bad enough,Vel’squez charged $50 a week forfood and $20 for rent. Since theworkers only got three days of workper week at $6.50 per hour, therewas very little money left after theypaid their expenses. When Vel’squezcommunicated the death threats,Angel and Eduardo filed criminalcomplaints against their formercrew leader with the Wayne CountySheriff’s Office. Their court date iscurrently set for May 25.Luginbuhl listened closely andexpressed great concern over theworkers’ plight. Vel’squez thengot on the line and recounted aconfrontation he had with JoseVel’squez on May 8. Frank hadpicked up Angel and Eduardo andbrought them back to the camp. Frank said Jose rushed up to thedriver’s side window and told him hewas trespassing on private property.Frank explained he was deliveringthe workers back to their residenceso it was lawful for him to be on theproperty. The confrontation endedwithout incident, but it became clearto Frank that Jose didn’t want anyonefrom the outside to see the livingconditions of the farmworkers.Luginbuhl appeared moved byour statements and said she woulddirect one of the bureau’s fieldagents to go to the FLOC office tomeet with Frank before headingout to the camp to investigate. Theconversation with Luginbuhl offeredthe first glimmer of hope on a dayfilled with bad news. Five hours earlier, two agentsfrom US Immigration and CustomsEnforcement had interviewed Angeland Eduardo for more than an hour.Around 9:15 a.m., Special AgentFrank Gomez emergedfrom the office where the interview was conducted and announced noarrests would be made that day. Gomez said there was not enoughevidence at this time to arrest Jose Vel’squez.

Detective CBCongleton of the Pitt County Sheriff’s Office also participated in theinterview. Congleton, a human-trafficking investigator with PittCounty, spoke with FLOC president Baldemar Vel’squez for severalminutes after Gomez made his announcement. Congleton ended hisconversation and passed the cell phone back to Frank, who handed it tome. “It really upsets me. Here’s their chance to nail this guy,”Baldemar said. He thought it was problematic that the FLOC stafferswere not allowed inside the room with Angel and Eduardo during theinterview. Baldemar then told Frank to contact the Wayne CountySheriff’s Office and ask for them to be present when Frank confrontedJose about the stolen wages. The sheriff’s office informedFrank that he needed a “claim of delivery” form signed by the clerk ofcourt before they could escort someone onto private property. Sothe five of us — Frank, Diego, Angel, Eduardo and I — drove down to theWayne County Courthouse to get the form. A bureaucrat in the clerk’soffice told us that the only way Angel and Eduardo could recover theirbelongings and their final pay would be to file a claim in small claimscourt. The cost to file a claim: $91. The cost of a writ to compel asheriff’s deputy to accompany the workers: $40. The clerk said it wouldtake at least a month for them to retrieve their belongings. “Thisis the injustice of the entire system. The rules are stacked againstyou,” Baldemar said on the phone afterwards. “This is the way Reynoldsgrows their tobacco.” On May 6, FLOC staged a protest againstReynolds American in the streets of Winston-Salem during the cigarettemaker’s annual stockholder meeting. FLOC is demanding thatReynolds put more resources in its production chain to help improve theconditions of immigrant farmworkers. “You see that we are allalone,” Frank said. But then we got an idea. If we could find out thename of the person who owned the trailer park, we could find out theowner of the tobacco farm and tell them about the conditions of theworkers. That person might know the name of the grower, and we couldthen contact that person. A quick check of tax records gave me a nameand an address. I made the call and got an answering machine. Fiveminutes later, my cell phone rang. A woman, who identified herself asthe wife of the property owner, said she had no knowledge of a group oftobacco farmworkers living on the property.

She said I must have written down the wrong address. She claimed she had never met anyone named Jose Vel’squez. WhenI described the trailer park — five old trailers beside an old cottongin — she said it sounded like her property. The tax records wereclear. The woman I was speaking with was the owner. And it was hard forme to believe she had no knowledge of 30 immigrant farmworkers crammedinside three trailers on her property. She denied knowledge of thelabor camp for 10 minutes, presenting FLOC with yet another dead end.This 10-minute conversation revealed another aspect to the immigrantfarmworkers’ situation I had not previously realized. Theseinjustices do not occur in a vacuum. People could stand up for theseexploited workers, but instead it seems some would rather profit fromtheir suffering. At the end of the day, it was hard to say ifAngel and Eduardo were any better off for coming forward. Undoubtedly,it took great courage to do what they did. Angel and Eduardo said theywere going to try to find work, but weren’t sure how. In the meantime,they plan on staying with Angel’s cousin. Eduardo said they came toFLOC because they believe the labor union will ultimately bring themjustice. As I turned north onto US 117 around 3 p.m. that day,they were still standing in the parking lot of la Tienda, staring downthe two-lane blacktop, waiting.

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