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Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Workers’ Rights Activists Tell Students, ‘Human rights are possible, but not a given’

Gerardo Reyes Chávez (left) of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and Daniel Castellanos (right) of the National Guestworker Alliance discussed their labor organizing work with law students and undergraduates. 

On September 21, 2017, the Schell Center sponsored a conversation with prominent workers’ rights advocates Gerardo Reyes Chávez and Daniel Castellanos. The two men shared stories of the extreme exploitation and violence faced by low-wage guestworkers and agricultural workers in the United States. But they also described their hard-fought, successful campaigns, which offered hope that conditions are changing.

Reyes Chávez is a leader of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), a worker-based human rights organization that has negotiated with corporations such as Taco Bell and Wal-Mart to raise workers’ wages and protect workers’ rights. Castellanos, a former guestworker himself, is one of the co-founders of the National Guestworker Alliance (NGA), which works to empower low-wage and contingent workers across the United States.

The conversation was led by former Schell Center Robina Fellow J.J. Rosenbaum, who was recently honored by the National Day Laborer Organizing Network and is working on a project addressing abuses in the global supply chain. Rosenbaum opened the conversation by asking the speakers, whom she has worked alongside for many years, about their conception of human rights. Both Reyes Chávez and Castellanos stressed that human rights are a work in progress. “Human rights are possible,” said Reyes Chávez, “but they are not a given, especially not for us—people who already live on the edge, people who are already vulnerable.”

Reyes Chávez and Castellanos gave many examples of how that vulnerability is exploited. Castellanos shared his own experience of being convinced to pay $5,000 to travel to New Orleans with the promise of a construction job that would pay him $16 per hour to assist in the post-Katrina rebuilding process. When he arrived in the U.S., he found that he would be paid only $6 per hour to work at a hotel and would be forced to live under the constant supervision of his controlling employer. Fausto Garcia, another organizer with the NGA, described being beaten for dropping a fish at the seafood processing plant where he worked. The presenters described the sexual harassment, physical violence, and threats to families that other workers have faced. Reyes Chávez told the story of a group of trapped guestworkers who were chained together and padlocked inside a truck.

As all three presenters stressed, the experience of many low-wage workers in the U.S. amounts to modern-day slavery. Castellanos pointed out that, in light of these human rights violations, when you eat pizza, “You don’t know how many tomatoes are stained with blood.”

The CIW and the NGA have made significant contributions to addressing such worker exploitation. The CIW, for example, has implemented the Fair Food Program, which requires growers to obey enforced labor standards and educates workers on what those standards are. The NGA has been instrumental in exposing and correcting abuses in the supply chains of companies such as Hershey’s and McDonald’s.

The CIW and the NGA are continuing to fight for the protection of workers’ rights. “We use the declaration of human rights as a way to imagine what could be possible,” Reyes Chávez said. “But we know it’s going to take a lot to get to that point.”

The presenters emphasized that the students assembled had the power to help achieve justice for workers. As they become the lawyers and leaders of the future, Garcia urged, they should act with conscience and contribute to the protection of workers’ human rights.

Written by Madeline Batt