Antonio Castañon: “In this life one must fight for things to improve”

Meet Federico.

Federico is one of the approximately 100,000 farmworkers working in North Carolina this harvest season. Every year, individuals like Federico put everything on the line and migrate from Mexico and Central America to North Carolina to work the tobacco harvest season. Expanding from early July to late September, the tobacco harvest season not only brings a lot of migrant workers to the state, but also lots of revenue. North Carolina-grown tobacco accounts for over half of the total U.S. production, making tobacco the most profitable cash-crop in the state of North Carolina. Companies like Reynolds American, Altria Group, and Lorillard, collectively known as “The Big Three,” hold nearly 90% of the tobacco market share in the US, profiting from the hard labor performed by workers like Federico.

While tobacco brings in approximately $770 million dollars to North Carolina according to the USDA, workers like Federico do not see much of that money. After being recruited and gathered at the US consulates in Monterrey and Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, migrant farmworkers are transported 1,600 miles to their work camps by way of overcrowded buses. With little stops and much less spending money on hand, workers must endure the travel and the uncertainty of not knowing their final destination. The reward: A promise of housing and a weekly paycheck for three months. Federico has made the arduous journey five times now, each time getting it a little harder because of his age.

“I do it because back in Mexico things are not well…There’s no jobs, crime is up…and I have a family to feed, children to send to school…I do it for them,” explained Federico.

Working from 7AM to 6PM, migrant farmworkers under the H2A visa status get paid $9.87 per hour. They are the lucky ones. Undocumented workers that also work in the fields are usually, and unjustly, paid the minimum-wage of $7.25 for performing the same work. The only thing worse than the back-breaking labor and inadequate pay, is the living conditions these workers encounter after they arrive to North Carolina. In a small white house with significant wear and tear and no central air, Federico and six other colleagues endure their off-time in the hot Southern summer. The vast majority of workers do not get to enjoy the luxury of a private home. In many camps, workers live in barrack-style residences, often without mattresses or pillows, housing anywhere from 50 to 80 people. Due to the close-quarters and nature of the work, lack of hygiene and health-related issues are rampant in the camps. The luxury of plumbing and flushable toilets are replaced by unlit outhouses and bushes.

The Farm Labor Organizing Committee, with the assistance of the AFL-CIO, is driving a campaign to affiliate an additional 5,000 members to join their current membership of 6,000. The hopes are that with growing numbers and farm worker involvement, FLOC can achieve better wages, working conditions, and living conditions for the tobacco farmworkers. It is for these reasons that Federico became affiliated with FLOC. “Las cosas estan dificiles, pero en esta vida se tiene que luchar para mejorar (Things are indeed difficult, but in this life one must fight for things to improve)”