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Immokalee Farm Workers Protest Slave-Like Conditions

A group of about 200 protestors stood outside of a Wendy’s restaurant near Union Square in New York City Saturday. They were demanding that the fast food company sign on to the Fair Food Program, an agreement not to buy agricultural products from farms that employ low wage Hispanic and Haitian farm workers.

The protest is part of a larger campaign that started in 2001 that has thus far pushed eleven retail companies including fast food companies like Taco Bell, Subway, and McDonald’s to sign on to the Fair Food Program.

 It is the physical and verbal abuse that has pushed the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), based out of Florida, to fight back and improve conditions in the fields of Immokalee. And low wages

“Under the Fair Food Program,” says Gerardo Reyes, 35, a Florida farm worker and activist with CIW, “companies agree to follow a code of conduct for a set of basic rights that guarantee the dignity of farm workers in the field.” This entails setting up Health and Safety committees that would organize and file reports on employer misconduct, including sexual harassment, ensuring that the Fair Food Program’s Code of Conduct rules become a reality.

“Among those rights,” he says, “is the right to report an abuse without fear of retaliation. In the past, workers filing a complaint would have been fired.”

The new measure is significant because farms will sometimes send workers into the fields too soon after they’ve sprayed them with pesticides. As workers sift through the greens for tomatoes and cucumbers, they are also sifting through many toxins that lead to cancer and lung injuries.

Workers have also been forced to work during lightening storms and extreme heat waves, but could not report the illegal activity for fear of losing their jobs and having to leave their families.

The Fair Food Program also implements a system that allows workers to submit the hours they worked in a day to receive the correct amount of pay if they don’t meet the piece rate for the minimum wage.

Farms that violate any of these measures are barred for a period of time from selling their products to the eleven companies that have signed on to the Fair Food Program. They are also barred if they refuse to cooperate with an investigation after a worker has filed a report, whether it be child labor or sexual abuse.

These measures are largely responses to past cases of abuse. It was reported in US vs. Navarrete (2008) that bosses, for example, who are hired to keep order and high productivity, had chained workers and locked them up in produce trucks overnight, so that they were readily available in the morning for another day of harvesting.

 It was also reported that workers were charged for sleeping on the floors of the truck, as if it were rent. They had also been asked to pay $5 dollars for showering — which consists of a quick rinse from a garden hose.

Since 1978, workers’ wages have been stagnant. Each day, a tomato picker must collect 2.5 tons of tomatoes to make the minimum wage. They earn less than 50 cents for every 32 lbs they harvest. 

Chain restaurants that continue to pay the lowest price available for products like tomatoes, cucumbers, and watermelons encourage this behavior. The Fair Food Program is an effort to get retailers to pay the higher price of “penny-per-pound” so that wages for Immokalee workers may improve. 

“Wendy’s is currently undergoing an effort to reinvent themselves,” Reyes tells me in Spanish. The fast food restaurant is set to have their shareholders meeting this Thursday. “They’re doing so in an effort to distinguish themselves as better then their Fair Food competitors. Actually, they are the ones who are behind.”