Farm worker supporters gathered for a press conference Sunday in reaction to the University's announcement that it would lift its boycott of Mt. Olive Pickle Company, which has come under fire for doing business with suppliers accused of unfair and unsafe labor practices.
Speakers voiced two major concerns about the University's decision, namely that the University failed to consult farm workers, union representatives and students in its deliberations with the company and that it consequently reached an agreement that is both vague and ineffective.
Nick Wood, boycott director for the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, noted in his remarks that although President Nan Keohane visited a farm with Mt. Olive representatives over the summer, she was not accompanied by an interpreter and was therefore unable to communicate with farm workers. Wood further stated that the farm was one known to have abnormally good working conditions.
Triangle Friends of the United Farm Workers chair Joan Preiss echoed Wood's sentiments. "Instead of putting her faith in the farm workers and the organization they want to represent them, Duke President Nan Keohane has put her faith in Mt. Olive's [President] Bill Bryan and has entered the University into its own private agreement with him," Preiss said.
To kick off the press conference, fired pickle harvester Mamerto Chai offered a personal account of the abuses against which the boycott was aimed. Chai spoke through a translator, recounting how his crew leader at a Princeton, N.C., farm refused to drive him to the hospital for what turned out to be appendicitis.
"I told him that I couldn't pick cucumbers that day... and he said that I was probably drunk," Chai said.
Chai spoke of other abuses as well, including his crew leader's refusal to pay workers what they were owed for their labor and the workers' subjection to physical threats.
"He would come to our trailers with his gun and say that he could kill us, that he could kill anyone," Chai said. "He would always threaten us. I don't know why we were working for him."
Wood voiced the group's other major concern, that the University entered into an agreement that will be ineffective in improving the quality of the farm workers' lives.
"Requiring suppliers and growers to sign statements of compliance affirming that they will follow the law goes no further than the claims Mt. Olive has said its suppliers are already required to do," Wood said. "The history of farm workers in the U.S. has shown that simply enacting tougher laws has never meant that they've been enforced."
John Burness, senior vice president for public affairs and government relations, did not attend the conference, but responded that the burden of monitoring the supplier farms will fall on Mt. Olive.
"They didn't have any compliance statements before. One assumes that we're going to have a much stricter set of controls than existed in the past," Burness said. "Are they perfect? I don't know that anything is perfect, but I think we need to wait and see how it works."
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