“Honor the hands that harvest your crops.”
Dolores Huerta, co-founder of United Farm Workers
I’d like to invite you, dear readers, to hold hands with the person next to you, close your eyes and step into the Deconstructing Myths time machine. We are going to travel back in time to a hot, dusty town called Immokalee, somewhere near the 733 square mile swamp known as the Florida Everglades. Loosely translated “my home” from the Seminole language, Immokalee is anything but home for the families who work and toil under the blazing, unforgiving sun from sunup to sundown. Edward R. Murrow once visited this place and never came back. The boss man and company store also came to town but they never left. Here, there are men and women who face oppression, sexual abuse and violence on the regular while living like third world residents in a first world country. As you gasp and shake your head at what you are about to learn about the farmworkers of Immokalee, one of you will look at a calendar pinned to a dusty trailer wall and see how far back in time we have traveled. No, not quite back as far as the days of the antebellum United States when blacks were imported in chains like so many Hondas but, in fact, the time machine has only moved one day backwards. This is why the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) calls the conditions of the farmworkers for what it is-modern day slavery. In Immokalee, slavery has not heeded some tall man’s proclamation made in a faraway time and place; it has merely amended its colors like a leopard changing its spots.
A typical day for a farmworker in Immokalee begins long before the sun peeks its chin over the horizon. No matter the country of origin, Guatemala, Mexico, El Salvador, the lives of the workers share a unified theme of exploitation and gross disregard for human rights and dignities. The men and women meet at predetermined pick-up spots to get a ride to the fields. Here, the crew chief wields the power over who works and who doesn’t, a system ripe for exploitation and abuse. The Modern-Day Slavery Museum is a touring museum that display artifacts of the conditions the workers have been made to endure through the decades, often in silence and with no one to speak up for them. Chains that were used to lock workers in trailers against their will, photographs of the squalid, living conditions and the buckets that have become the bane of the tomato picker’s existence are part of the museum’s sordid collection. The CIW, which runs the museum, has risen from the same grassroots that the workers of Immokalee have trod to become not just a voice but a strong arm to wrestle the forces of big business, politics and agriculture aligned against the field workers.
The bucket is the measure of a man or woman’s worth in the fields of Immokalee. Pickers are paid by the piece so the more tomatoes picked the more they can, in theory, earn. According to the CIW’s fact sheet, “The average piece rate today is 50 cents for every 32-lbs of tomatoes they pick, a rate that has remained virtually unchanged since 1980. As a result of that stagnation, a worker today must pick more than 2.25 tons of tomatoes to earn minimum wage in a typical 10-hour workday – nearly twice the amount a worker had to pick to earn minimum wage thirty years ago, when the rate was 40 cents per bucket. Most farmworkers today earn less than $12,000 a year.” All while performing some of the most labor intensive work known to man in unrelenting heat and humidity, with an added dose of chemicals and pesticides that the workers breathe in and come in to contact with on a daily basis. Workers were also being forced to overfill the buckets which then became another source of profit for the bosses. The harvest season can feel like a lifetime for the workers who are often separated from family and loved ones back in their homelands or spread across the United States.
To add insult to injury, the farm workers live in a state of indentured servitude. The farm owners or their middle men control every aspect of the workers’ lives including their meals, lodging and incidentals, which are deducted from their pay. This leaves the workers unable to adequately provide for their families and more importantly, escape or leave the job for better opportunities. It also creates conditions that leave the women especially vulnerable. Not only are they away from their children for 10-12 hour days, they are easy targets for the crew chiefs who hold the women’s economic futures in their unflinching hands. Sexual harassment and abuse is woven into the fabric of the farmworker’s lives and the women bear the heaviest burdens. If the women or family members are undocumented they become essentially invisible to society and easy prey for the predators that roam the fields and streets of Immokalee. Before the Fair Food Program, the increasingly corporate growers were content to look the other way when it came to worker mistreatment as long as the buckets were filled. The CIW was instrumental in bringing forth federal prosecutions and convictions of owners for charges that range from kidnapping, involuntary servitude, rape, assault and human trafficking just to name a few.
Perhaps, the greatest accomplishment is the founding of the Fair Food Program, a landmark labor agreement that finally brought farmworkers a number of long overdue rights in the form of job protections and wage increases. These victories were forged through alliances with diverse groups such as the Student Farmworker Alliance, Interfaith Action, and the Presbyterian churches. The coalition utilizes outreach in the schools, churches and universities as well as highly visible marches, barnraisings and hunger strikes that bring publicity to their causes. The CIW has been successful in bringing companies such as Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, Chipotle, McDonald’s and Taco Bell to the table as well as the historic agreement with the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange in 2010. The coalition is marching at this very moment 200 miles from Ft. Myers to Lakeland to persuade Publix to join the program. I was privileged to join the CIW for two days in Sarasota and Bradenton, a minuscule contribution in light of the immense sacrifices and dedication that I witnessed in my short time with the marchers.
It is hard to believe that these arguments are even still taking place in 2013, an era in which we can track movements by satellite, fly at the speed of sound and drive cars that can be plugged in. How did these men, women and children get left so far behind? How did they disappear before our very eyes? The people who pick the food we eat, instead of thanking and honoring them, we exploit their desire to build a better life for themselves and for their families. We bait them with the promise of the American dream then flip the switch so that the corporate beast can be fed. At least Marie Antoinette offered cake, we just let them eat the scraps that fall from our tables while convincing ourselves they’re just a bunch of “illegals” out to take our jobs. I don’t know about you but no one, immigrant or otherwise, has ever taken a job in the fields of Immokalee from me because I sure as hell wasn’t planning on applying for one, much less actually getting out there and doing it. That’s called privilege when you choose your life rather than have it chosen for you. Ok, everybody, back in the time machine, its time to head back to tomorrow. Peace to the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and to the farmworkers and their families who deserve justice now.
Disclosure: I do not speak for or in any way represent the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. They are more than capable of speaking for themselves.