My name is Olivia Guzman. For 17 years, my husband Fausto and I have been coming to the U.S. each season from our hometown in Mexico as H-2B guestworkers. We worked with thousands of other guestworkers who process and pack seafood for big retailers like Walmart and Whole Foods. The guestworker visa requires us to work for only one employer. The name of our boss is inscribed in our passport, and if we are fired or leave to seek work somewhere else we can be detained and deported by ICE.
Our employers paid us a piece rate—by the weight of seafood we cleaned—that often came out to be less than the minimum wage no matter how fast we worked. They housed us in decrepit labor camps on company property where snakes crawled up through cracks in the floor. Bosses and managers surveilled us in the camps, humiliated us, and even physically abused us. To keep us silent, they constantly threatened us with firing, deportation, and blacklisting so we could no longer find work as guestworkers.
There comes a time you can’t take the abuse any more, and in spite of the threats, you have to speak up. I did that when I became of member of the National Guestworker Alliance (NGA). I traveled across the Gulf Coast and organized my fellow guestworkers into committees to try to change conditions in the industry. I traveled to Washington, DC, and Mexico City to tell political leaders about the abuse.
But when I hosted NGA meetings in my house, the recruiter spied on us. She said we were all trouble makers and threatened to have us blocked from coming back to the United States. And I learned that the threats were real, because this year, my employer blacklisted me in retaliation for my organizing. I was removed from the employment list, accused of being a trouble maker, and blocked from coming back on an H-2B visa to my employer.
Walmart says it wants to stop forced labor on its supply chain, but continues to buy from suppliers who abuse guestworkers every day. Whole Foods tells customers all about where its fish were caught, but not that the fish were packed by workers who were trapped in severe labor abuse.
Walmart and Whole Foods set the standards that thousands of suppliers follow. My fellow NGA members and I are calling on them to sign the NGA’s Forced Labor Prevention Accord. The Accord is a binding agreement that would ban retaliation and blacklisting, ensure basic labor standards, and create a binding dispute resolution process that includes employers and workers. We are urging retailers to sign the Accord to ensure that their suppliers don’t trap guestworkers in exploitation and forced labor.
We need to find other solutions to food wholesaling other than forced labor. If retailers cannot afford to charge a reasonable price while paying workers a living wage, something is wrong with our economy. This only confirms that something is very wrong. Some of us are turning to grassroots and local farm solutions by avoiding corporate greed altogether.