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  • Workers drag a Christmas tree through a field at a farm in North Carolina. Workers in the Christmas tree fields say they intend to push on in their fight for equality.

    Workers drag a Christmas tree through a field at a farm in North Carolina. Workers in the Christmas tree fields say they intend to push on in their fight for equality. | Photo: Reuters

Published 25 December 2017

"The people buying Christmas trees should know that it’s not easy to go out there in the heat when they don’t let you drink water," Carlos said.

Buying Spruce and Pine trees is a Christmas tradition worldwide, but there's more to the glitzy Christmas trees laden with ornaments and trinkets. Very few know about the burdensome Christmas Tree Industrial Complex, which is neither environment nor labor friendly.  

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Christmas tree industry is a multi-billion dollar industry which requires long-term planning as trees take anywhere between seven and 12 years to reach a standard height. This means the farmers in this business have marginally big upfront costs and substantially less time, a month or so, to recover their costs. 

A satellite image in a report by Quartz shows a massive difference in the vast swathes of land of this man-made forest, from Oct 31 to Dec 11, earlier filled with bushy green trees but barren as the holiday season approached, and that would remain so until the new saplings are planted.

Many regions in the United States are seeing shortages in trees and spike in prices this year. Total US revenues were US$2.04 billion in 2016—just ahead of the US$1.86 billion in sales of artificial trees, per the National Christmas Tree Association.   

Workers at a North Carolina tree farm, Hart-T-Tree farm in Grassy Creek, said their wages were stolen, as well as being exposed to hazardous chemicals, and were constantly at risk of injury on the job, the Guardian reported. The workers also accused their employers of pushing them too hard to meet the holiday demands. 

They decided to organize as part of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, where they ended up winning a US$350,000 wage theft settlement against their employer. 

"We gotta organize, this is the hardest work out there," one worker, "Carlos" who wished to protect his real identity, told the Guardian. "We’re human beings too."

The workers finally mustered the courage to sue after the company started stealing their wages by deducting the cost of rent, electricity, and gas from their pay. Under federal law, employers must provide the cost of room and board to those employed under the H-2A guest worker program.

They collaborated with Farm Labor Organizing Committee (Floc) and the North Carolina Growers Association (NCGA) and found out that some of the workers were making as little as US$9 an hour, but with the collective bargaining agreement between Floc and NCGA, the minimum wage was set at US$11.27 an hour for all farm workers.

“We want to make it clear that we care about our workers and their safety has always been important to us,” a farm spokesman told the Guardian, adding the farm acknowledged their mistakes and made amends. 

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Workers who were exposed to the toxic chemicals such as Dimethoate 400, a toxic herbicide used to kill mites and aphids, said they experienced, "headaches, dizziness, vomit, and diarrhea. They were awful,” Carlos told the Guardian.

The tree-cutters who worked under toxic chemical exposure also said they were not allowed to take breaks for drinking water and were forced to work 12 hours a day. 

"The people buying Christmas trees should know that it’s not easy to go out there in the heat when they don’t let you drink water," Carlos said. "A few white people came here to work and they couldn’t take it. This is work being done entirely by Mexicans."

"The grower was always right behind us, pressuring and criticizing your work,"  Another worker, "Alejandro," told the Guardian, "They would yell at you constantly. Many people quit."


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