Florida’s farm industry has long been plagued with high profile cases of worker abuse—including several instances of slavery. But one advocacy group, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) has works to bring justice and better working conditions for the mostly migrant laborers on Florida’s farms. Yesterday, the group had a major victory.
It took over a decade of struggle, but finally, the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange (FTGE) has signed onto the CIW’s Fair Food Code of Conduct. The agreement will bring better working conditions and a penny-per-pound raise for Florida’s tomato farm workers.
Harsh Working Conditions, Lack of Rights
U.S. farm workers do not enjoy the same legal protections extended to most other members of the workforce. The 1935 passage of the National Labor Relations Act gave millions of Americans basic workers rights, but farm laborers and domestic workers were left out of the bill—and, as Kevin Bales and Ron Soodalter write in The Slave Next Door, “are still denied the rights enjoyed by all other workers.” And working conditions are notoriously hard for farm workers. A 2008 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revealed that crop workers die from heat related illnesses at a rate 20 times higher than other U.S. workers.
Bring it to Fast Food Chains
The FTGE is a private cooperative of Florida’s tomato farm owners. For 15 years, they refused to come to an agreement with CIW—so, the CIW got to organizing. If the farm owners won’t cooperate, why not put pressure on the companies at the other end of the supply chain?
CIW organized student groups and farm workers to stage boycotts and demonstrations against major corporations that use Florida tomatoes in their products. Through their Fair Food campaign, launched in 2001, CIW was able to convince companies like Taco Bell, McDonalds, Burger King, Whole Foods, Subway and Sodexo to take steps to ensure their supply chains are free of worker abuse.
But it wasn’t until yesterday that the FTGE followed suite. In a statement, CIW spokesperson Lucas Benitez called this a “watershed moment in the history of Florida agriculture.” But, Benitez added, “there is still much to be done.”
Next on the agenda: supermarkets. Gerardo Reyes, also of CIW said: “It is time now for supermarket industry leaders to seize this historic opportunity to help make the promise of fresh—and fair—tomatoes from Florida a reality.”
It was in the year 2000 that U.S. federal law recognized the extant of modern day slavery with the passage of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act. But years before this, CIW was instrumental in levying charges of slavery against unscrupulous people in the Florida farm industry. A 1997 landmark case resulted in 15 year sentences for Miguel Flores and Sebastian Gomez, who forced hundreds of workers to labor for virtually no pay monitored by armed guards, who shot and beat laborers who tried to escape. CIW’s website says, “The case was brought to federal authorities after five years of investigation by escaped workers and CIW members.” Both Flores and Gomez were charged with slavery.
Free the Slaves featured the work of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in our documentary Dreams Die Hard. Watch it after the jump!