What Happened When I Stood Up for Dignity

My name is Mirna Elizabeth Pacaha Batz. I’m a mother from Guatemala who came to the United States to make a better life for my family. I became a seafood processing worker on the supply chain of CostCo, a company that doesn’t just promise great values — it promises not to allow labor abuse on its supply chain.

But the reality for me and my fellow workers was sexual harassment, humiliation, and sub-minimum-wage pay. When we spoke up against the abuse, we were fired as punishment. But we’re not giving up. We’re fighting for dignity for ourselves and other workers, and we’re asking big companies like CostCo to take responsibility for the abuse that takes place at their U.S. suppliers every day.

I began as a temp worker at a CostCo supplier, Atlantic Cape Fisheries, in 2012. Atlantic Cape is one of the biggest seafood companies in New England, producing a quarter of the scallops on the East Coast. But the temp agency, B.J.’s, paid me less then minimum wage to work long hours grading scallops at a plant in Fall River, MA.

Our supervisors rushed us all the time, shouting at us like we were animals. We had to be hunched over the scallops every minute for 8–10 hours a day to avoid getting yelled at by supervisors. If we stood up straight, they yelled, “Hurry up! You’re not working.” No matter how fast we worked, they always pushed us to work faster.

At one point, I moved from the packaging line to the freezer line. That’s when things got even worse. The supervisor was a man named Fidel Santos. He sexually harassed me and the other women on the line constantly. He rubbed up against us, touched us everywhere, said horrible things about what he wanted to do to us. I was angry and afraid. I said, “No — you can’t do this to me.” I told him I had a husband and a child. I told him to respect me and the other women. But he wouldn’t stop. He knew which surveillance cameras didn’t work, and he would harass whoever was near the broken cameras. He knew that many women would stay silent because he threatened to fire them if they spoke up.

But we decided to organize against the abuse. A group of us joined Centro Comunitario de Trabajadores (CCT), an affiliate of the National Guestworker Alliance. We had meetings about what we wanted: an end to sexual harassment and verbal abuse, better wages, and benefits. We presented our demands to the president of the company multiple times. He expressed interest at first, but when we pressed him to resolve the issues, all we heard was said, “If you don’t like it, you can go.” The company refused to take any action against the supervisor who was sexually harassing us — they protected him and refused to negotiate with us.

Then, in April, Atlantic Cape and B.J.’s fired 14 of us — the workers who were the most active in demanding our rights. They told us our line was being automated and there was no work for us in other parts of the plant. We knew this was a lie, because B.J.’s continued to bring other workers into Atlantic Cape for work in different parts of the plant. We had been fired because we demanded our rights. Atlantic Cape treated us like we were disposable, and used B.J.’s to replace us with other temp workers.

By being a member of CCT and working with NGA, I have learned that seafood workers all around the U.S. face abuse like this — and all around the world. These workers process the seafood that is sold at CostCo, Walmart, Whole Foods, and other big companies at the top of the supply chain. Those companies talk about their high standards, but when workers like us stand up against abuse, we face retaliation and the big companies turn a blind eye.

Our fight is just beginning. We filed a legal complaint about the sexual harassment and sub-minimum-wage pay, and charges with the National Labor Relations Board about the retaliatory firing.

We took the risk to demand our rights because we don’t think any worker deserves the abuse we faced. We know that the big companies at the top of the supply chains are the ones that companies like Atlantic Cape and labor brokers like B.J.’s listen to. We want CostCo and other big companies to do more than talk about stopping labor abuse. We want them to take responsibility for their supply chains and help us win the dignity we deserve.

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