PHARR — Nearly three dozen people gathered outside the Premier Produce warehouse Wednesday morning to protest the termination and unpaid wages of nearly two dozen former employees.
The protest was organized by La Unión del Pueblo Entero (LUPE), a nonprofit that the former employees reached out to in order to consult with attorneys from the Texas RioGrande Legal Aid.
“We’re here to stand by workers that have been exploited,” Elizabeth Rodriguez, Farmworker Justice Advocate for LUPE, said as protesters marched on the sidewalk just outside the warehouse on South Sugar Road in Pharr.
“They were lied to about their rights,” she continued. “They were worked 60 to 80 hours a week without overtime pay, and then abruptly they were let go. They were worked days without the intention of being paid those final days.”
Rodriguez described the former employees as essential workers. She said they were agricultural workers who helped sort and pack produce to be shipped throughout the United States.
“They are planning on taking legal action because, of course, they need to get the wages that they earned and worked for,” Dani Marrero Hi, director of advocacy and communication at LUPE, said. “They also want to make sure that the owners of this company know that they can’t go around doing that to people. People are not just going to walk away for fear of whatever the owners here threaten them. That’s why they’re organized here today — so the owners know that they’re watching and to warn other people that this is happening to them.”
Many former employees of Don Felipe’s Taqueria, who also claim they were overworked and abruptly terminated without compensation, were at Wednesday’s protest to show solidarity with the former Premier Produce employees.
The protesters held signs and carried United Farm Workers flags as they marched and chanted just outside the fences of the warehouse. However, very few of the Premier Produce employees were actually present for Wednesday’s protest.
“Most of them are undocumented,” Rodriguez said. “They were manipulated by their employers. They were told that they didn’t have rights and that they didn’t have the right to ask for overtime pay. That if they didn’t like the job here or if they were not happy with their pay, that this was the best that they’d be able to get anywhere else.”
Rodriguez said the former employees were intimidated by their employees and that LUPE is attempting to make them aware of their rights to help restore faith and value in the work that they do.
“We want to send a message out to all of our representatives, congress, the president, the vice president, everybody needs to understand that this is not the only group of workers,” Rodriguez said. “This is something that runs rampant all across the United States. Undocumented workers work the most essential of jobs. They are the backbone of our economy. They need protection. They need a path to citizenship. We need to protect them from exploitation so that they can raise their voices and so the rich corporation can stop getting rich off of their labor.”
“This is equivalent to modern-day slavery, and we need to put a stop to it.”
Attempts to reach Premier Produce Services, which is based out of Fort Worth, for comment were unsuccessful as of press time Wednesday.