It is 5 a.m. on a chilly morning in southwest Florida. I’m standing in a parking lot watching bus after bus of farmworkers load up to head to the fields for the tomato harvest. Years ago, this lot would have been overflowing with farmworkers desperate to find work. Today, it resembles more of a leisurely commute thanks to decades of advocacy and action to secure fair working agreements with Florida’s tomato growers by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers.

The CIW is a farmworker-led justice organization that is improving the lives and working conditions of tomato pickers in Florida, and bringing national attention to changes needed to ensure human rights in the fields.

Florida growers produce about $620 million worth of tomatoes annually, a job that wouldn’t be possible without hired hands, around 100,000 per season. This is a labor intensive industry; yet, on average farmworkers earn sub-poverty wages—$10,000 to $12,000 per year—and are considered among the most economically disadvantaged working groups in the U.S. by the USDA.

Picking tomatoes is grueling work—hard physical labor in the sun for long hours—something we don’t often think about when at a grocery store sifting through clam shells looking for the reddest, juiciest tomatoes of the bunch.

Historically, farmworkers have suffered labor violations of wage theft, verbal abuse, and sexual harassment. Pesticide exposure and heat exhaustion are also dangers of this work, and job insecurity a reality. Housing for farmworkers is often overcrowded, inadequate, and expensive. And, many of these conditions are still a reality for agricultural workers today, including forced labor, where farmworkers are held against their will and made to work with little or no pay.

The CIW began organizing in 1993, and in the past 20 years has helped increase wages for tomato workers, created an anti-slavery campaign that was instrumental in uncovering and prosecuting seven modern-day slavery operations, and pressured major corporations to take responsibility for human rights abuses in the fields from which they purchase produce. They’ve done this by getting companies to sign on to the Fair Food Program, a campaign that developed out of the group’s shift in strategy to target corporate buyers.

The CIW began this shift in early 2000, realizing that major fast food corporations, supermarkets and broad line food service providers had the power to make changes in the fields to positively impact farmworkers. These companies purchase massive amounts of fruits and vegetables, and are able to leverage their buying power to demand low prices from suppliers, a tactic that in turn trickles down to negatively affect wages and working conditions along the supply chain. With 90% of U.S. tomatoes grown in Florida, the CIW saw an opportunity to pressure corporations to enforce a code of conduct on their tomato suppliers, and began working alongside the Student Farmworker Alliance, Just Harvest, and Interfaith Action of Southwest Florida to organize boycotts, peaceful protests and marches to bring attention to their Fair Food Campaign using customer purchasing power.

“When we first began organizing, we wanted a dialogue with the growers,” explained Leonel Perez, a CIW leader and farmworker. A small group of workers went door to door to organize tomato pickers to come together to demand better wages, which had remained the same for 30 years, and to demand better treatment by crew leaders, who often failed to pay workers and verbally harassed them.

“There were many abuses by crew leaders, and we found that even though many of the growers knew about this treatment, they did nothing to stop it,” said Perez. Farmworkers are not protected under labor laws, and do not have the right to overtime pay or to organize to bargain with their employers, one of the many reasons wages have remained the same for so long.

Many tomato pickers in Florida are paid by the piece, which today amounts to 50 cents for every 32 pound bucket of tomatoes harvested. In order to earn minimum wage for a day’s work, about 2.5 tons of tomatoes must be picked in 8-10 hours. That’s around 5,000 pounds of tomatoes carried on one person’s shoulders in a day – or 156 thirty-two pound buckets.

Migrant workers pick tomatoes

“You fill your bucket as quickly as you can, put it on your shoulder and run to the dump point, throw it up to someone who dumps it, and they put a token in it and toss the bucket back down to you to fill again,” Perez said. There is plenty of room for corruption here, by withholding tokens or demanding buckets be filled over the top, practices that workers had to endure in the past with no recourse.

As part of a delegation to learn about the CIW, I had the opportunity to visit an industrial tomato and citrus grower, Pacific Farms. The temperature becomes noticeably warmer and the air a little muggy as we enter the field. This farm has 3,000 acres in production, and all I can see is row after row of grape tomatoes, bright red and ready to be picked. I hear the steady patter of tomatoes as they land in the plastic harvesting buckets, and the distant chatter of workers. We are told there are 400 people out working in the fields on this day, spread out across 60 acres. The farmworkers at this site are paid an hourly wage plus a piece rate during harvest time to pick grape tomatoes.

The Fair Food Campaign asks buyers to pay a premium of “a penny per pound” for tomatoes, a bonus which is passed on to farmworkers. Buyers are also required to only purchase tomatoes from growers who have committed to the Fair Food Code of Conduct on their farm, like Pacific Farms. The Code includes basic provisions such as having a time clock in place where all working hours are recorded, a system for workers to complain without fear and with anonymity, and basic health and safety protections such as shade, water, and proper training on equipment. Pacific Farms, as long as it abides by the Fair Food Program requirements, has guaranteed access to markets paying the premium.

“It’s a wonderful strategy,” said Jake Ratner, our delegation’s leader and Just Harvest representative, “farmworkers’ rights have to be respected by growers and crew leaders on site, or they face market consequences.”

CIW education sessions occur on company time at participating farm sites to ensure workers are aware of their rights, and to create a worker-to-worker enforcement of the code. There is also oversight by the Fair Foods Standards Council, an independent body that provides monitoring and compliance of the Fair Food Program, ensuring the premium is passed to farmworkers at participating sites, and that the Code of Conduct is being followed. “This model is transportable, but there needs to be a market consequence, and an operation with integrity and enforcement,” said Sean Sellers (FSF-07), of the Fair Foods Standards Council. “We are making powerful changes for workers and the U.S. agriculture industry.”

Sellers explained that $8 million has been paid out by participating buyers, including Subway, McDonald’s and Trader Joe’s over the past two seasons. Yet, more buyers need to enter the program so premiums paid to farm workers are consistent. The CIW’s campaign is currently focused on Wendy’s the fifth largest fast food chain in the nation, and Publix supermarkets.

“We’re trying to change an entire industry here,” exclaimed Lupe Gonzalo, a CIW leader and farmworker. “We are not tractors, not tools of the industry, but human beings that deserve respect and dignity.”

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