Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Tomatoes of Wrath: Medieval Serfdom in Immokalee Florida

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Published: Tuesday 27 September 2011
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 replicate medieval serfdom and at times descend into outright slavery.

 It is 6 a.m. in the park­ing lot out­side the La Fi­esta su­per­mar­ket in Immokalee, Fla. Ro­drigo Ortiz, a 26-year-old farm­ worker, 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 repli­cate me­dieval serf­dom and at times de­scend 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.
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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.”
This ar­ti­cle was orig­i­nally posted on Truthdig.

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