Ripping it Out By the Root

October 18, 2012 Op-Eds, Opinion

After an Immersion trip to Immokalee, Alkass exposes the truth behind the struggles local farm workers have endured for decades.

It’s a Saturday afternoon and you’re out at your local grocery store. As you head down the produce aisle, you pick up a carton of tomatoes priced at $2.39. You figure that’s reasonable and toss the produce into your cart. For you those tomatoes probably don’t mean much, maybe you’ll cut them up for a salad. You may not even use them all in time and throw some rotten ones away.

But did you know that those tomatoes represent the difference of eating or paying rent for an entire family? Do you know if the provider of the tomatoes engages in ethical labor practices? Do you know that companies pay millions of dollars to agricultural scientists to develop produce with specific genetic traits?

If you’re like me, you probably didn’t give it a second thought. My entire perspective changed this weekend when I participated in the immersion trip to Immokalee. Driving three hours south of Rollins and noticing the changing scenery from urban buildings to cow pastures and fields, I realized that the situation in Immokalee is a modern day Grapes of Wrath. Up until four years ago, working conditions for farm laborers were equal to modern day slavery. The workers were subject to wage theft as well as physical and verbal abuse. Those in the agricultural industry have not received a pay raise in 30 years! They are still paid by the piece. The average rate today is 50 cents for every 32 pounds of tomatoes. This means that in order for a worker to earn minimum wage, they have to pick almost 2½ tons of tomatoes within a 10 hour period!

In addition, workers are further exploited when looking for housing. A two room trailer often houses 10-14 people and costs $300/week. Still not convinced that this exploitation of power and poverty culminates into modern day slavery? Since 1997, Federal Civil Rights officials have prosecuted seven slavery operations involving 1,200 workers in Florida fields. One of the slavery cases happened as recently as July 2010, when Department of Justice officials accused three individuals of holding over 50 workers from Haiti in the bean fields of Alachua County, FL. The employers took the workers’ passports and forced them to work the fields. Unfortunately the charges were dropped in January 2012.

Despite all of this abuse, there is a new day fast approaching in the fields. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers is the primary advocacy group our immersion team worked with over Fall Break. The CIW is located on the main street in town. It’s simple and has a few old computers in their offices and a semi-circle of rocking chairs in the front room. As benign as the CIW may seem, they’ve made an impact across the nation and brought awareness to both school campuses and communities of faith.

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers’ most notable achievement is perhaps the agreement called the Fair Food Program. This program ensures that the Florida farm workers are granted human rights and fair wages. The program has implemented a code of conduct as well as a guarantee that workers will receive minimum wage regardless of how many pounds of tomatoes they pick. In addition to this minimum wage, farmers have signed agreements with their retailers to pay an extra penny per pound or 32 cents, in addition to the 50 cents per bucket. This means that the companies that have signed this agreement are paying 82 cents per bucket and this money is given back to the workers. The incentive for farms to keep up with this code of conduct is that if grievances are reported back to the CIW, they will lose business with major companies. Major nationwide companies have already signed this agreement; Chipotle even signed the Fair Food Program the day before our group left on the trip! Other food service enterprises endorsing the CIW include Wendy’s, Subway, McDonalds’, Aramark and Sodexo.

The people who work for the CIW are warm and hard-working. They talked about the travesties they’ve endured, but they also empowered us to make a difference. One of the women, Silvia, discussed that she is a third generation farm worker. However, her daughter has managed to attain a full scholarship to any college of her choice. You could see the excitement on Silvia’s face that her daughter was going to escape the agricultural industry and receive an education. In addition to learning about the causes CIW fights for and the hard work that goes into producing a crop, our group also spent time mulching the grounds for Immokalee Housing Services, which provides affordable housing, daycare and preschool for the low-income workers.

As we were weeding, I couldn’t help but think what one of the leaders of the CIW had told us. If we want to end modern-day slavery, we have to rip it out by the root. Quick fixes will never eradicate the problem. And that’s what I felt we were doing as I knelt in the scorching sun, methodically gathering the weeds. That our small group was slowly but surely spreading awareness and making difference. After all we tend to forget the little screaming fact: repression works only to strengthen and knit the repressed.

About Kaitlyn Alkass

Kaitlyn Alkass 15' is a Staff Writer at The Sandspur and studying English at Rollins College. Her previous internships include Where Orlando, Destination Weddings & Honeymoons and What's Up UK.

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