Voice of the Farmworker

The Voice of the Farmworker

by Abraham Paulos

“Pesticides hurt your nose and face… We get up at 4:30a.m. to go wait for work. And sometimes they don’t pay us – we work eight or 10 hours a day and don’t get a check. We’re just trying to feed our families,” said Manuel Cortez, a 17-year-old farmworker who immigrated to the U.S. from Oaxaca, Mexico, to reporter Kari Lydersen.

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) has heard stories like Manuel’s for years. At a camp in Lake Placid, FL, people were kept under constant surveillance, crammed four to a single room the size of a pantry, denied their rightful pay, beaten and pistol-whipped into submission. Farmworkers are the most transient of laborers and unquestionably the most impoverished of all workers in America. Farmworkers make, on average less than $10,000 a year working with toxic pesticides and living in abominable, poor conditions with no health benefits, vacation time or sick days.

In spring 2005 CIW won a historic and unprecedented victory through its four year boycott Taco Bell that resulted in increased wages, and a workers’ rights agreement for farm workers who grow Taco Bell’s tomatoes. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers has called upon McDonald’s and recently Burger King to take responsibility for their supply chain and by working with CIW to improve wages and working conditions in the fields of Florida. It’s long past time for other fast-food companies to follow suit.

What is the cost of justice to farmworkers like Manuel? One penny.

By paying one penny more per pound of tomatoes picked, McDonald’s can nearly double the wage of a farm worker who must pick more than two tons of tomatoes per day just to make the state’s minimum wage rate of about $6 an hour.

The power of the CIW’s message can best be summed by their slogan consciousness + commitment=change.” Consciousness is the organic ingredient for the recipe of social change. The CIW has done a remarkable job at raising consciousness and strengthening commitment that has led to successful action and social change. Like the peasant and indegenious movements around the world, such as those in Latin America and the Caribbean, the CIW use art, music, and images to vividly paint pictures of the lives of low wage workers’. These unconventional methods aim to awaken a wider public to the struggles that farmworkers face everyday.

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers, founded in 1994, is a community-based worker organization based in Immokalee, Florida. Its 3,000 members are largely Latino, Haitian, and Mayan Indian immigrant farmworkers who speak a variety of languages. Together, they are fighting for livable wages, improved working conditions, better and cheaper housing, stronger workers rights, laws and enforcement, the right to organize without fear of retaliation, and an end to indentured servitude in the fields. In just over 10 years, CIW has become a powerful advocate for farmworkers and an internationally recognized leader in the fight against modern-day slavery, helping bring justice to Florida since 1997.

The CIW is more than an organization. It is a movement that empowers workers to resist exploitation and demand justice.

The CIW seeks to build its strength as a community on the basis of reflection and analysis, constant attention to coalition building across ethnic divisions, and an on-going investment in leadership development among its members. These principles are a unique organizing approach to the unique circumstances such as undocumented farmworkers with a higher illiteracy rate than the rest of the country. The Coalition of Immoklee Workers is a well-deserved winner of the Harry Chapin Self Reliance Award (HCSRA), administered by WhyHunger’s Grassroots Action Network (formerly known as the Reinvesting In America program). The HCSRA is awarded as a cash grant to outstanding grassroots organizations in the U.S. that have moved beyond charity to creating change in their communities. Winners are judged outstanding for their innovative and creative approaches to fighting domestic hunger and poverty by empowering people and building self-reliance. The CIW embodies innovative solutions and self-reliance, two vital components for social change and justice.

CIW will use their award to build a community center to serve as a base for its human rights work and for the many programs for the community. Other than bars, restaurants, and street corners, farm workers have no place to congregate. There is currently no public space for seasonal workers to meet, learn valuable skills, and work together to address the human rights abuses they experience in the fields. A community center is critical for the workers to reinforce connections necessary to unveil and confront cases of modern day slavery in the fields.

The issue is more than just about paying an extra penny for tomatoes. For McDonalds, Burger King and too many other companies, it’s about being accountable for their harmful financial policies. Companies that exploit its workers can be held accountable by the raising of consciousness and a diligent commitment by the public to demand justice.