Many of us bemoan the treatment and pay of employees in certain industries, but too few of us complain about the treatment of farmworkers, the people who plant, cultivate and harvest our food. Farmworker advocates, a few legislators and a relative handful of ordinary citizens seem to care about this vulnerable population. We should be ashamed.
One of the most abused groups of farmworkers is Florida's tomato pickers, who earn the same amount for a bucket of tomatoes, about 45 cents, as they have earned since 1978. Florida's fresh tomato crop is worth $619-million annually.
A recent commentary in Facing South, the online magazine of the Institute of Southern Studies, aptly sums up the plight of tomato pickers, mostly Mexican, Haitian and Central American immigrants: "They work seven days a week, between 10 to 12 hours with no overtime pay, no health insurance, no sick days, no benefits and no job security. They often have wages withheld, face beatings and violence, and live in deplorable living conditions where they are packed like sardines into trailers. In the most extreme cases they are enslaved."
The majority of all American farmworkers earn less than $10,000 a year. Written in 1938, when U.S. farmworkers were mostly black and racism was more blatant, the Fair Labor Standards Act excluded field hands. Our current labor laws, with remnants of our old racism, still leave farm workers unprotected. They do not have the right to bargain collectively, they have no legal guarantee of overtime pay and they can be fired at the whim of the boss.
If anything can give tomato pickers substantive relief, it is a pay raise. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers is doggedly waging this battle. For nearly eight years, the CIW has campaigned to persuade the entire U.S. fast food industry to pay another 1 cent per pound for tomatoes picked.
The effort has been successful with some fast-food chains. During a U.S. Senate hearing in April focused on working conditions for Florida farmworkers, McDonald's and Yum Brands, which includes Pizza Hut, KFC, Taco Bell, A&W and Long John Silver's, agreed to pay the 1-cent increase. Then, Burger King agreed. Most recently, Subway, with 24,000 U.S. stores, agreed to match Burger King and ante up an additional 1.5 cents per pound to cover administrative costs and guarantee that at least a penny will be reserved for workers. Subway went further by insisting on a monitoring system to ensure that the penny reaches the pickers.
U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., an outspoken advocate for the cause of Florida farmworkers and a member of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, said of the Subway action: "This agreement between Subway and the (CIW) is yet another blow to the scourge of slavery that continues to exist in the tomato fields of Florida. Subway is to be congratulated for moving to ensure that none of its products are harvested by slave or near-slave labor. Sadly, too many other companies continue to tolerate this travesty."
For no valid reason, the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange opposes the penny going directly to pickers and has implemented a $100,000 fine for any member that pays workers extra. Two growers participated in the Taco Bell deal for two years but stopped under pressure. The Burger King and McDonald's deals have not been implemented, and the pickers have not seen a penny of the money that belongs to them. Instead, the money from the chains is being held in bank escrow accounts. The CIW is trying to get the money dispersed to pickers.
Meanwhile, the CIW, with a growing number of college students joining the cause, plans to continue protest tours nationwide to bring attention to this economic injustice.
Former President Jimmy Carter has been at the forefront of the tomato pickers' effort, and the CIW is hoping that President-elect Barack Obama will support its cause. In a letter to Obama, the coalition wrote: "We know you're a busy man, so we'll get right to the point: Come to Immokalee. Your victory has allowed us to dream again. Our dream is for a U.S. food industry founded on respect for human rights, not exploitation of human beings."
The new president can help. But the real, enduring help has to come from ordinary consumers who have the power to force the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange and other industry giants to stop exploiting field hands.