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Unions fight against abuse of migrant laborers

Mexican and US organizers are risking their lives to prevent guest workers from being swindled by unscrupulous 'recruiters.'

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Alberto Hernandez had picked tobacco in the US for nearly a decade, and even he was easily sucked into the scam: an eight-month contract, and a $9-an-hour job in the US – visa and transportation included – all for $700 up front.

When he came home to his wife and three children that day, after the bus to take him to the US never showed up, his wife burst into tears.

Two years later, he awaits a 36-hour bus journey from Nuevo Laredo along the US-Mexico border to the tobacco fields of North Carolina, where he'll work for the next five months. This time he has paid not a single fee nor left his wife with any debt.

The difference is due to new efforts by leaders in Mexico, through the Ohio-based Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC), to protect migrant laborers from the thousands of unscrupulous recruiters who prey on them as they try to navigate the guest-worker program to earn a living in the US. But interfering in the recruiters' lucrative trade is proving difficult – and deadly.

In April, a union organizer was tortured and murdered in the union's Monterrey office.

FLOC has vowed to fight on and expand its reach throughout Mexico – especially if an overhaul of US immigration laws, which was reintroduced to US Senate debate last week, augments the numbers of guest workers heading to the US – and, thus, the abuse at the hands of recruiters.

"We can't stop this now, it's just going to go further and further," says Castulo Benavides, the director of FLOC in Mexico. "If they kill me, someone else will take my place, and this will keep moving forward."

How guest workers get swindled

For over 60 years, Mexicans have crossed the border legally each year, to harvest tobacco in North Carolina, extract meat from crabs in Maryland, pick blueberries in Maine, among other menial jobs. In 2006, some 37,000 workers got visas to carry out agriculture and other low-skill labor. More than three-fourths come from Mexico.

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