It is 6 a.m. in the parking lot outside the La Fiesta supermarket in Immokalee, Fla. Rodrigo Ortiz, a 26-year-old farmworker, waits forlornly in the half light for work in the tomato fields. White-painted school buses with logos such as “P. Cardenas Harvesting” are slowly filling with fieldworkers. Knots of men and a few women, speaking softly in Spanish and Creole, are clustered on the asphalt or seated at a few picnic tables waiting for crew leaders to herd them onto the buses, some of which will travel two hours to fields. Roosters are crowing as the first light of dawn rises over the cacophony. Men shovel ice into 10-gallon plastic containers from an ice maker next to the supermarket, which opens at 3:30 a.m. to sell tacos and other food to the workers. The containers—which they lug to pickup trucks—provide water for the pickers in the sweltering, humid fields where temperatures soar to 90 degrees and above.
Ortiz, a short man in a tattered baseball cap and soiled black pants that are too long and spill over the tops of his worn canvas sneakers, is not fortunate this day. By 7 a.m. the last buses leave without him. He heads back to the overcrowded trailer he shares with several other men. There are always workers left behind at these predawn pickup sites where hundreds congregate in the hopes of getting work. Nearly 90 percent of the workers are young, single immigrant men, and at least half lack proper documents or authorization to work in the United States.
Harvesting tomatoes is an endeavor that comes with erratic and unpredictable hours, weeks with overtime and weeks with little to do and no guarantees about wages. Once it starts to rain, workers are packed back onto the buses and sent home, their workday abruptly at an end. Ortiz and the other laborers congregate at the pickup points every morning never sure if there will be work. And when they do find daywork they are paid only for what they pick.
“I only had three days of work this week,” Ortiz says mournfully. “I don’t know how I will pay my rent.”
Ortiz, who along with many others among these migrant workers sends about $100 home to Mexico every month to support elderly parents, works under conditions in these fields that replicates medieval serfdom and at times descends into outright slavery. He lives far below the poverty line. He has no job security, no workers’ compensation, no disability insurance, no paid time off, no access to medical care, Social Security, Medicaid or food stamps and no protection from the abusive conditions in the fields. The agricultural industry has a death rate nearly six times higher than most other industries, and the Environmental Protection Agency estimates that of the 2 million farmworkers in the United States 300,000 suffer pesticide poisoning every year.
But this may change as one of the most important battles in the history of migrant labor is launched by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW). If this battle succeeds it will nearly double the wages of the farmworkers who labor in the $600 million tomato-growing industry. A victory over the supermarket chains also would hold out the possibility of significantly alleviating the draconian conditions that permit forced labor, crippling poverty and egregious human rights abuses, including documented cases of slavery, in the nation’s tomato fields. If the CIW campaign—which is designed to pressure supermarket chains including Publix, Trader Joe’s , Wal-Mart, Kroger, and Ahold brands Giant and Stop & Shop to sign the CIW Fair Food Agreement—fails, however, it threatens to roll back the modest gains made by farmworkers. It depends on us.
“We are standing on the threshold of achieving significant change in the agricultural industry,” Marc Rodrigues, with the Student/Farmworker Alliance, tells me later in the day at the CIW office in Immokalee. “But if the supermarkets do not participate and support it then it will not go any further. Their lack of participation threatens to undermine what the workers and their allies have accomplished. They represent a tremendous amount of tomato purchasing. They wield a lot of influence over conditions in the field. For those growers not enamored of the concept of workers attaining rights and being treated with dignity, they will know that there is always a market for their tomatoes with no questions asked, where nothing is governed by a code of conduct or transparency. If we succeed, this will help lift farmworkers, who do one of the most important, dangerous and undervalued jobs in our society, out of grinding poverty into one where they can have a slightly more decent and normal life and provide for their families.”
The next major mobilization in the campaign will take place at noon Oct. 21 outside Trader Joe’s corporate headquarters in Monrovia, Calif. This will follow a week of local actions to target supermarkets across the country. To thwart the campaign, the public relations departments of Trader Joe’s, Publix and other supermarkets are churning out lies and half truths, as well as engaging in unsettling acts of intimidation and surveillance. Publix sent out an employee posing as a documentary filmmaker to record the activities of the organizers.
“Publix has a cabal of labor relations, human relations and public relations employees who very frequently descend from corporate headquarters in Lakeland, Fla.—or one of their regional offices—and show up at our demonstrations,” says Rodrigues. “They watch us with or without cameras. They constantly attempt to deflect us: If we attempt to speak to consumers or store managers these people will intercept us and try to guide us away. These people in suits and ties come up to us and refer to us by our first names—as if they know us—in a sort of bizarre, naked attempt at intimidation.”
If you live in a community that has a Whole Foods, which is the only major supermarket chain to sign the agreement, shop there and send a letter to competing supermarkets telling them that you will not return as a customer until they too sign the CIW Fair Food Agreement. Details about planned protests around the country can be found on the CIW website.
Workers in the fields earn about 50 cents for picking a bucket containing 32 pounds of tomatoes. These workers make only $10,000 to $12,000 a year, much of which they send home. The $10,000-$12,000 range, because it includes the higher pay of supervisors, means the real wages of the pickers are usually less than $10,000 a year. Wages have remained stagnant since 1980. A worker must pick 2.25 tons of tomatoes to make minimum wage during one of the grueling 10-hour workdays. This is twice what they had to pick 30 years ago for the same amount of money. Most workers pick about 150 buckets a day. And these workers have been rendered powerless by law. In Florida, collective bargaining is illegal, one of the legacies of Jim Crow practices designed to keep blacks poor and disempowered. Today the ban on collective bargaining serves the same purpose in thwarting the organizing efforts of the some 30,000 Hispanic, Mayan and Haitian agricultural laborers who plant and harvest 30,000 acres of tomatoes.
The CIW, which organized a nationwide boycott in 2001 against Taco Bell, forced several major fast food chains including Yum Brands, McDonald’s, Burger King, Subway, Whole Foods Market, Compass Group, Bon Appétit Management Co., Aramark and Sodexo to sign the agreement, which demands more humane labor standards from their Florida tomato suppliers and an increase of a penny per bucket. But if the major supermarkets too do not sign this agreement, growers who verbally, sexually and physically abuse workers will be able to continue selling tomatoes to the supermarkets. This could leave at least half of all the fields without protection, making uniform enforcement of the agreement throughout the fields difficult if not impossible.
“Supply chains are very opaque and secretive,” says Gerardo Reyes, a farmworker and CIW staff member. “This is one of the reasons a lot of these abuses continue. The corporations can always feign that they did not know the abuses were happening or that they had any responsibility for them as long as there is no transparency or accountability.”
One of the most celebrated modern cases of fieldworker slavery was uncovered in November 2007 after three workers escaped from a box truck in which they had been locked. They and 12 others had been held as slaves for two and a half years. They had to relieve themselves in a corner of the truck at night and pay five dollars if they wanted to bathe with a garden hose. They were routinely beaten. Some were chained to poles at times. During the days they worked on some of the largest farms in Florida. It was the seventh such documented case of slavery in a decade.
“As long as the supermarket industry refuses to sign this agreement it gives the growers an escape,” says Reyes. “We need to bring the pressure of more buyers who will sign the agreement to protect the workers. We have gotten all of the major corporations within the fast food industry and food providers to sign this agreement. Two of the three most important buyers within the industry are on board. But if these supermarkets continue to hold out they can put all the mechanisms we have set in place for control at risk. If Wal-Mart, Trader Joe’s and other supermarkets say the only criteria is buying from those growers who offer the lowest possible price then we will not be able to curb abuses. If the agreement is in place and there is another case of slavery then the growers will be put in a penalty box. If we do not have the ability to impose penalties then there will always be a way for abusive growers to sell. The agreement calls on these corporations to stop buying from growers, for example, that use slave labor. Without the agreement there is no check on these practices.”
“Supermarkets, such as Trader Joe’s, insist they are responsible and fair,” Reyes goes on. “They use their public relations to present themselves as a good corporation. They sell this idea of fairness, this disguise. They use this more sophisticated public relations campaign, one that presents them as a friend of workers, while at the same time locking workers out of the discussion and kicking us out of the room. They want business as usual. They do not want people to question how their profits are created. We have to fight not only them but this sophisticated public relations tactic. We are on the verge of a systemic change, but corporations like Trader Joe’s are using all their power to push us back.”