Part 1: Working conditions in Florida agriculture
On Monday, about 40 people gathered at the Broad Street Presbyterian Church for a presentation by two organizers from the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW). Santiago Perez and Marc Rodrigues spoke about the CIW’s work to gain fair wages and acceptable working conditions for Florida farm workers through its Campaign for Fair Food.
“A lot of the success of this campaign depends on having strong base of support from allies outside of Immokalee,” said Marc Rodrigues of the Student/Farmworker Alliance, one of several groups that work in partnership with the CIW in Immokalee, Florida.
The Columbus event was attended by members of Ohio Fair Food, Broad Street Presbyterian Church, Local Matters, First Unitarian Universalist Church, Central Ohio Immigrant Justice, Columbus Free Press, Broad Street Methodist Church, Overbrook Presbyterian Church, UFCW Local 1059, and Central Ohioans for Peace.
“Florida is one of the main agricultural states in the country, and Immokalee is the biggest center of agricultural production in the state,” said Santiago Perez, a farm worker and CIW staff member. Rodrigues acted as an English interpreter for Perez, who spoke in Spanish.
“Every tomato season, November through April, between 30,000 and 40,000 workers are involved in the harvest of tomatoes across the state of Florida,” Perez said. During those months, “the state of Florida produces more than 90% of the tomatoes here in the United States.”
Most of the farm workers in Florida are from Mexico, Guatemala, Haiti, and other Central American countries, Perez said. They spend roughly eight months a year in Florida, working the season there, and follow the harvest up north for the rest of the year.
“The reason why many people have to migrate in the first place, and end up as farm workers in Florida, is free trade agreements—in particular, NAFTA , the North American Free Trade Agreement, which was passed in 1994,” Perez said.
“It benefitted a lot of the people who were already powerful and wealthy in Canada, the United States and Mexico, and it negatively impacted a lot of poor and working people in those countries,” Perez said. “In the case of Mexico, many, many thousands of people who were small farmers couldn’t compete in the marketplace any more because of the free trade policies. They lost their livelihoods and had to migrate elsewhere in order to survive.”
Agriculture is a highly exploitative industry where workers’ rights are not respected, Perez said. On a typical day in Immokalee “you wake up at 4 or 5 o’clock in the morning at the latest. You’re living in a trailer with 8, 10, 12, or even more other people. The rents for these trailers can be $1500 to $2000 a month, so that’s the only way people can afford to pay the rent. You wait in line to use the stove and the bathroom.”
Most of the workers in Immokalee are single men or younger men who have left their families elsewhere, but there are some women who work in the fields, Perez said. “The situation is very difficult for them because they have to wake up at 4 or 5 o’clock in the morning and drop their children off with a neighbor. They may not get back from work until late in the evening when the children are already sleeping. Many days can pass when you don’t get to interact with your own children.”
Working in the fields is very difficult and strenuous, Perez said. “It’s hot and humid. There are chemicals and pesticides, sometimes being sprayed near you, if not on you. And you’re getting very low wages for the hard work that you’re doing.”
Florida farm workers are paid by the bucket, not by the hour. “A bucket weighs 32 pounds when it’s full of tomatoes,” Perez said. “You have to harvest about 140 buckets in a 10-hour work day to make the equivalent of minimum wage.”
Marc Rodrigues described the process of harvesting one bucket of tomatoes. “You would have to go through the entire process of filling the bucket, hoisting it on your shoulder, walking or running to where the truck is—a couple of hundred feet away, throw the bucket up into the truck, and return to your row of tomatoes. You would have to do that entire process every four minutes, without stopping at all, for 10 hours straight, just to earn the equivalent of minimum wage,” he said.
“Today, on average, you get paid about 50 cents for every 32-pound bucket,” said Perez. “That has essentially been unchanged for the past 30 years.” In 1980, workers made 45 cents per bucket; the increase to 50 cents is negligible compared to inflation, he said.
Perez and Rodrigues brought a tomato harvesting bucket to the presentation, and invited members of the audience to try to lift it. The bucket was filled with 32 pounds of rice. Several audience members made the attempt. Most were able to lift the bucket to their shoulder with some difficulty.
“Doing this all day every day is not an easy way to make a living,” Rodrigues said.
Part 2: Worker abuse and modern-day slavery
Part 3: The Campaign for Fair Food