According to the Florida Department of Health, there are 150,000 to 200,000 migrant farmworkers that travel to Florida for work every year. Some of these workers experience unfair wages, horrible living conditions and even slavery.
While the treatment of farmworkers has been an issue since the 1960s, the problem still persists today. Because of this, advocacy groups are doing more to bring this to the attention of the general public.
Last week, from Sept. 10 until Sept. 15, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) and the Gainesville Interfaith Alliance for Immigrant Justice (IAIJ) had a Week of Action to bring awareness about the horrors that some farmworkers still face today.
“If you have people who are helping to make your company incredibly profitable, that produce things that your consumers really value, then you should reciprocate and make sure that they’re treated fairly and humanely within a human rights context,” Paul Ortiz, a member of the Gainesville IAIJ and a history professor at the University of Florida, said.
As a Mexican-American, Ortiz grew up heavily involved in agriculture. He has previously worked as an organizer of the United Farm Workers of America, the nation’s first farmworkers union, and he has been apart of the farmworker movement since he began graduate school.
“I know a lot of farmworkers that work in the state of Florida and they’re hardworking people. I think they deserve to make a living wage,” Ortiz said. “I’m really concerned about those issues that affect people that I know.”
The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) is an internationally recognized human rights organization credited with starting the Fair Food Program, a campaign to improve working conditions and low wages to mistreated farmworkers. It’s headquarter is based in Immokalee, Fla., but the organization has become a voice for farmworkers all over the country.
These workers produce the mass of the fruits and vegetables we find in the corporate food industry. This allows huge corporations, like Publix Super Market Inc., to have the bargaining power to demand the lowest possible prices forcing lower wages and worse working conditions upon those who actually do the physical labor.
The CIW began the first farmworker boycott of a major fast-food company, Taco Bell, and its parent company, Yum! Brands, in 2001. During a lengthy four-year boycott, the CIW demanded industry giants take social and moral responsibility for the human right violations that were taking place in the fields of where they were buying their produce.
The conditions of the agreement were simple. Mostly, the CIW was insisting that major companies that continuously bought large amounts of tomatoes pay at least an extra cent per pound.
They also wanted these companies to only buy from growers who give that cent directly to their workers, enforce a code of conduct in the workplace and keep a full and complete record of purchases and wages.
After national attention was gained, Taco Bell agreed, prompting McDonald’s Corp. to sign the agreement in 2007. Burger King signed a year later, followed by Whole Foods Market and then Subway, the largest fast-food buyer of Florida tomatoes.
The University of Florida’s food service provider, Aramark Ltd., signed an agreement with the CIW in 2010.
Publix has been the organizations next target. Since 2007, the Campaign for Fair Food and the Alliance for Fair Food has tried to get Publix to sign an agreement only to be met with continuous refusal.
Apart of the Week of Action, the CIW and the Gainesville IAIJ organized a protest on Sept. 14 at the Publix on SW 34th St. and West University Ave.
“They (Publix) currently lack the understanding and education about the issues at hand. One of the issues being that slavery exists in Florida. A lot of farmworkers in South Florida who work in the tomato harvest, which Publix purchases tomatoes from, have been subjected to conditions of slavery,” Ortiz said. “They have basically tried to make the claim that they don’t know anything about what’s happening or if something’s happening, it’s the government’s responsibility.”
Despite the rain and a police presence, a large number of people showed up to support the cause. One of the protesters was Alli Baldwin, a 22-year-old senior at UF. Baldwin lived at LaLa Land Organic Farm just outside of Gainesville for a short period of time. There, she learned how to grow her own vegetables. On top of growing produce for herself, she also shares her harvests with the community.
“I find them (Publix) to be more influenced by money. Their intention is for their personal profit instead of for the greater good,” Baldwin said.
While she said she does her shopping primarily at the local farmer’s market, Ward’s and the Citizens Co-Op, Baldwin admits to shopping at Publix occasionally, claiming that it’s easy to get sucked into the convenience and cost efficiency of a major supermarket chain.
Ortiz made an interesting comparison with the slavery of African-Americans in the 19th century.
“The analogy I make as an historian is that during slavery times, before the end of the Civil War, you had slaves. You had masters. The argument that Publix is making now is akin to, ‘Well, we benefit from slavery, but it’s just between the slaves and the masters. They have to work it out.’ I think they’re still kind of stuck in the 1812 mentality, which was an attitude of moral relativism. If it doesn’t bother me, if I can rationalize it, then it’s OK. It’s not an issue,“ said Ortiz.