This July, 23-year-old Julia Quecaño Casimiro travelled over 7,000 miles from Chile to the UK to work as a seasonal fruit picker. When faced with broken promises, and poor living and working conditions, Julia took wildcat strike action along with hundreds of other workers, got in touch with UVW – and is now taking her bosses to court.
The story of Julia’s journey to the UK will be a familiar one to most UVW members. Her journey is borne of a very real need to provide for family. The hurdles and barriers she encountered along the way include discrimination and poor living conditions, but her indomitable spirit is fuelled by a determination to fight for dignity and respect. This is her story, in her words.
When the global pandemic hit, Bolivian-born Julia and her nine brothers and sisters were amongst the 32.9 million people, who according to the UN World Food Programme, were at risk of acute food insecurity due to family members working overseas no longer being able to send money home.
Determined to find a way to provide for her family and pay for her studies, Julia travelled from Chile to Bolivia by bus. With her cousin, she risked her life crossing the Atacama desert and sleeping rough in the desert:
“There were rumours flying that the border control police were beating people up, we got lucky. They (the border police) picked us up and took us to Santiago.”
Raised in a family of indigenous farmers, Julia quickly found work as a seasonal fruit picker in Chile:
“My parents lived off their land, they would sell what they produced and so since I was a child, I learned everything about agriculture and everything that has to do with the land, food, everything, all the vegetables, all of that.”
Julia seized with both hands the opportunity to come to the UK, as part of the UK government-run scheme to find seasonal fruit pickers. After attending a three-day meeting in Santiago, where she was told she would need to repay return flight costs of around $1,000, Julia unknowingly signed a contract in the belief it was just another form. Alongside other workers, she flew to the UK.
Julia arrived in a group of 120 Latin American workers, in July this year, from Peru, Bolivia and Chile hired to pick strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, blueberries for Haygrove Farms, in Hereford, UK.
Almost immediately it was clear to her that the hours and pay promised were a fiction. The living conditions were cramped and dirty, the workers were not given a copy of their contracts, and were told they needed to to pay over the odds for their return flights to and from the UK.
“I realised something was wrong when they said the form that we signed in Chile was a contract, but I didn’t tell anyone, I had to be sure. So, when I arrived at the camp I asked if everything was okay with the work and all that. But they told me that there were people waiting to start work. We had to wait, the 14 of us who had just arrived, for about two weeks to work. During that time, we had to survive on what we had, what we brought with us, which was nothing.”
Julie told us there was no drinkable water at the farm and even water to wash with was in short supply:
“There was never drinking water, only water to wash our hands for the first week and then it ran out. Fruit picking is a heavy job, the body gets dehydrated, so we need to drink water. There were toilets and showers in the camp where we lived and in the fields where we worked, but they weren’t hygienic, they were blocked and they kept filling up. The beds were so narrow and the rooms so small that the beds joined together; it was almost like sharing beds. It was a very, very cramped place. The sofas were dirty, and the fridge burnt and our food rotted. A replacement fridge froze all our food. I cut my finger once while harvesting and there was no first aid, nothing, no first aid kit.”
Julia told us that working conditions in the UK paled in comparison to the conditions in Chile:
“The company I worked for in Chile gave us lodging, food and transportation. There were places where they charged for food or lodging, but in these places they paid us well. It was good; jobs were properly allocated, for example, one person for harvesting, one for cleaning the fruit, another one for sorting the fruit, etc. Everything in the UK was bad, it was a shock to me when I arrived and saw the working and living conditions here”
With no English, no union, and no fear the fruit pickers self-organised and called for change. Around 130 Latin Americans workers as well as other countries participated in drawing up their demands.
When their demands were ignored, the next day on 21st July, Julia and 88 of her fellow workmates downed tools and took wildcat strike action. It was incidentally almost a year to the day that hundreds of heroic Amazon warehouse workers struck over “pathetic” pay rises in 2022.
“They think we are ignorant and that we don’t have a say. But we know that we are in the 21st century and we have access to information and a way to take this forward. So, we agreed to continue striking. I wasn’t afraid, and when I realised that there was going to be no response, we decided to push on.”
Perhaps it is no coincidence that Julia took direct action after being ignored: she comes from Bolivia, a country where direct action and popular uprisings bring down Presidents.
“My parents would take me to blockades, marches, to protest and demand the government provide basic services, improve the bad conditions of the streets, all those things. Once we went on hunger strike for three days. There was a response at the end, they gave us what we were demanding.”
After taking part in the strike action some of the workers were forced to flee the Haygrove farm and a handful found their way, through contacts in the Chilean exiled community, to Casa UVW.
Julia launched legal proceedings over alleged harassment and race discrimination with the help of UVW last week. Haygrove has predictably denied all allegations.
There’s also a reason our movement refers to strikers as “brave and heroic.” Striking workers make sacrifices and take risks when they take industrial action. This includes losing pay, which for some workers already on poverty wages can mean having to skip meals, getting into debt and running the risk of trade union victimisation.
UVW members do not hold back from fighting for what they need and deserve, despite the risks. For a general union this size, UVW, a grassroots migrant and precarious workers union that represents over 100 nationalities in as many jobs, is at the top of the strike tally in the trade union movement. In the past 15 months, our members have voted for strike action 15 times. That’s a ballot a month. In 2023 alone, members in 10 different workplaces took strike action.
In the UK, workers jump many hurdles to take legal strike action. Firstly industrial action has to be organised by a trade union, then there are strict rules around holding a vote, e.g it must be a postal ballot where members vote on paper and return it in a prepaid envelope. At least 50% of eligible members must vote, and bosses must be given two weeks ‘notice.
Wildcat strikers are not protected by Industrial Action law (strike law) and can be easily dismissed. It takes courage and it takes numbers to take this type of action. It’s a push from the bottom up and at UVW we are proud to support the Haygrove farm strikers.
‘For all the people who feel their rights have been violated or have been intimidated in their jobs no matter where, how you are feeling right now can stop.It is up to you to seek help.United Voices of the World is here. They are willing to help you, you just have to reach out.,” Julia says.
Whichever sector you work in and however much you earn, taking strike action is always a heroic collective stance taken by workers whose backs are against the wall. If you want to organise your workplace, get in touch.
16.01.2024 / HARRODS