Do You Know Where Your Tomatoes Come From?

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Farmworkers pick tomatoes at Taylor & Fulton Tomatoes in Immokalee, Fla. (AP Photo/Luis M. Alvarez)

“Harvesting tomatoes and other produce from the nation’s agricultural fields is arguably the worst job in the country,” journalist Chris Hedges writes in his book Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt.

For workers in Immokalee, Florida, where nearly all of America’s winter tomatoes are grown, backbreaking labor under the heat of the Florida sun is only part of the drudgery. There’s often also toxic pesticides, sexual harassment, verbal and physical abuse — all for an average income of  less than $12,000 a year.

Nely Rodriguez is a 46-year-old mother of three who’s been working in the Immokalee fields since she came here from Mexico in 2000. But she’s not suffering silently under these unjust conditions. Nely is a member of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a community organization that has taken on the corporate giants at the top of the food chain — with some remarkable victories.

We spoke with Nely via Skype with the help of another coalition member, Marc Rodrigues, who translated the conversation.

Lauren Feeney: Why did you join the Coalition of Immokalee Workers?

Nely Rodriguez: When I arrived here in the Immokalee area, I started picking tomatoes, eggplants and other crops, and I found that the situation was really ugly and difficult; not like people back in Mexico imagine it to be. To get work on a daily basis, you would have to go to this big parking lot in the middle of town really early in the morning. There’s this mass of people and everybody’s looking for work — carting around to different buses that show up to be loaded with people to take out to the fields. Everybody crowds around the bus and tries to get on. A lot of times there would not be enough work for everyone who wanted it.

One day I noticed that right next to the parking lot was a little office belonging to an organization called the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. I was able to stop by there one day, during the day, as opposed to at four or five in the morning when I was usually in the lot looking for work. There were some folks there inviting everybody to come to the office for Wednesday night meetings — the coalition holds an open meeting for the community where workers talk about their concerns and learn about their rights. From that point on, I started to attend those meetings and that’s how I got involved with the coalition.

Feeney: What’s it like out in the fields?

Rodriguez: Just imagine, you’re working outside under the sun in the Florida heat. You’re hauling around a bucket full of tomatoes all day — when it’s full it weighs 32 pounds. You’re trying to fill up as many buckets as possible, put them up on your shoulder, run to the truck where they get dumped — and for that you get paid 50 cents per bucket. You have basically no rights. You don’t have a voice on the job or in the industry. And that leads to other issues, like not being able to take a break, not having access to water to drink. There’s no such thing as health insurance or any other really basic things that most people would expect to have from their job.

Feeney: What would fair working conditions look like?

Rodriguez: Of course, the biggest thing is wages. For decades, farmworkers have been earning what are really poverty wages which make it next to impossible to provide for yourself and for your family. The wage has been stagnant for a very long time.

Then [there are] basic things, like access to shade if you need it, the right to take breaks without being penalized or yelled at for doing so, to work with dignity and without being sexually harassed, without inappropriate comments being made.

A lot of it rests on the fundamental right for us as workers to speak out about conditions without fear of losing our jobs, and to have mechanisms in place so that our employers actually listen to what we’re saying. It really comes down to the big corporate food industry that, at the end of the day, is buying the tomatoes that we harvest — they need to recognize that farmworkers are an essential part of the system and deserve respect and recognition. All they’re looking out for is their profits — getting the tomatoes delivered on time, at a low price and of a certain quality. All of that is fine, but they also need to be concerned with how the people who harvest those tomatoes are treated.

Feeney:  How does the coalition work to change these things?

Rodriguez: For many years we confronted the tomato growers themselves, but eventually we realized that wasn’t the most efficient or strategic way to bring about change. If you look at the food system the way it exists today, the people who have the most power to bring about change are the big corporations at the top. So we launched the Campaign for Fair Food, and by uniting with consumers, faith groups, human rights groups and all kinds of people around the country, we’ve been able to get ten different corporations — including McDonald’s, Taco Bell, Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s — to agree to our demands, which are to pay a little bit more for their tomatoes to directly increase our wages, and also to abide by a strict code of conduct that guarantees workers’ rights are respected.

Now we’re focusing on trying to bring some of the big players in the supermarket industry to the table as well — companies like Publix, Kroger and Stop & Shop, for example. That’s where we’ve had the most resistance and where companies have been slowest to come on board. There’s also Chipotle, which is one of the few holdouts from the fast food industry.

As a result of getting all these corporations on board, we were able to get the tomato industry to really go through a transformation in the way they see us as workers. Now we’re working together with most of the Florida tomato industry to implement something that we call the Fair Food Program, which involves all kinds of improvements, like a complaint process through which workers can call a 1-800 number and a third-party monitor will look into their complaints. Workers now have timecards. Members of the coalition go out to the fields and educate farmworkers about the rights that they have under this whole new system that’s starting to take hold.

Feeney: How does a group of mostly immigrant farmers manage to effect change among big corporate titans? What do you do to change their minds?

Rodriquez: It didn’t happen overnight. For the past 10 or 15 years, we’ve done constant work to educate and mobilize — first the workers here in Immokalee, but then all across the country, talking to the people who eat the food we harvest. We go to churches, high schools, colleges and universities, community organizations, unions — basically anywhere that two or more people are gathered who have a few minutes to listen to us. We tell the story of what it’s like to be a farmworker — what conditions are like in the fields where your food comes from. We’ve done tons of marches, strikes, letter writing campaigns — all kinds of different creative nonviolent protests in order to bind farmworkers and consumers together to pressure these corporations and make them realize that they need to make some changes to the way that they do business. We’ve been fortunate enough to be somewhat successful in this, but we still have a long way to go before we’re done.

Take Action

To help the Coalition of Immokalee Workers with current campaigns targeting supermarket chains like Publix, Kroger and Stop & Shop, visit the website at CIW-online.org, where you can send a pre-addressed postcard to the corporations’ CEOs, or download a letter to the manager and bring it to their local outlet.

On July 25th, the coalition is organizing a national day of action to get Chipotle on board with its initiatives.

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  • Rchoice

    Why are people so disconnected to their environment, other’s rights and hardships?  Education is truly the key.  The large companies and even government keeps us compartmentalized so that we don’t,can’t or won’t see. The old Indian says, “Walk a mile in my moccasins.” ,holds to  the heart of the issue.  Until then see they don’t consciously care.
    Now the article didn’t state whether they were”LEGAL”. I understand and appreciate that we are one world, brothers and sisters, but the rules are made for everyone NOT the select few(OK in a right world) … but there needs to be a legal honest way for any people that want to work /without undercutting the work force  wage, to do so.
    NO ONE deserves to be denied food , water, shade, medical attention ( sorry NOT every job comes with BC/BS medical..but there should be a affordable basic coverage for every BEING on this planet) ,we all deserve respect!!!!
    I want to thank her for all the HARD BACK BREAKING, TRAIL BLAZING, work she is doing in order to raise our awareness and vibration as beings of love by working together and realizing we are all of this ONE planet (Honestly I believe it’s larger than just us but we can start here first. Then work our way out into the universe..if we LEARN to work together as ONE for that’s all there is, ONE!)

  • fair living wage

    America is able to afford to eat food because the farmers do not pay a fair wage , use as many undocumented workers as they can get away with , even recruit through thier benevolent missionary work and the very same farmers in Florida are tea party supporters that want to deport thier workers . why? So that the already lower than minimum wage piece work and agriculture legal pay so low is able to make them well off instead of having to depend on carefully monitored subsidies from the “regulated” watchdog GOV ??? Yet… they can exploit and human traffic ? bring back legal child labor perhaps ??? I do not see why they want to bite the hands that feed them? Good Chritsians that bring refuges from missions and go to save these poor people from the lives they had to come here and then deport them fast, then recruit via missions at churches then deport , then save the poor then deport. Sounds easier than coyotes at the borders which they will close via new harsher laws. What is really going on its there a job agency perhaps they get payment from workers to let them work? An organized Labor union that is controlled by the workers would be a better idea.

  • Jrff

    The truth is if we eliminate waste in just packaging and over eating and we abolish slavery in this country there would not be enough work for everyone to work 40 hrs per week.
    Fair wages and humane conditions and I believe you could find workers in this country to do the job of picking tomatoes.
    It sure beats the risk taken by coal miners.
    The work is not that hard, it is the corporate greed that makes it hard.

  • Sara Senger

    I live in California’s Salinas Valley “The Salad Bowl to the World” and daily pass by workers toiling in the fields. The conditions are miserable and they work long hours for very little pay. Many are undocumented and afraid of being deported. Often, they have paid “coyotes” $10,000 and more to be smuggled into this country. Because they work such long hours and are seldom home, their children are susceptible to gang pressures. In Salinas alone (with a population of 150,000) their have been 14 gang-related deaths already this year. I proposed a “California Fair Wage Produce” bill that would be something like Fair Trade coffee—buyers who purchased this produce could be assured that the workers picking their produce were treated fairly and paid well. It didn’t go anywhere this year, but I will keep advocating for something like this to be passed.

  • http://www.facebook.com/tfwelsh3 Tom Welsh

    Read “Tomatoland”!

  • http://www.facebook.com/lawrence.cook.374 Lawrence Cook

    Time to create a national ALRB

  • Anonymous

    My dad was a grower and when I was a kid, I worked summers for him as a field laborer. One of the jobs was topping onions. Grab a bunch of yellow onions, pull out of the ground, chop the greens off, letting the onions fall into a yellow wire half-bushel basket. WHen it was full, you carry it back to the truck, dump it and go back to work. We worked from 7AM until 5PM with an hour for lunch. It was backbreaking and horribly hot out in those fields with NO restrooms and the only water were jugs you brought yourself. I got 25 cents a basket and this was in 1966! They only get 50 cents a basket for tomatoes NOW? Holy crap! How can a family live off that?

  • Anonymous

    They can’t. Most Americans would be willing to pay an extra 10 or 20¢ or more per lb. for fresh produce if the extra went directly into a workers pocket.

    Locally I shop at farmers markets – not much cheaper but vastly higher quality. Our local groceries cut a deal that farmers market prices could not under cut thr grocers – well mostly. By the end of market hours bargaining is ferocious.

    By way of sharing childhood experiences that qualify me to appreciate how hard field & farm work is.

    I worked in a blue berry packing house for two summers starting when I was 14. We got 10¢ per flat of packed berries. A flat had – as I recall it was in ’58 – 12 pints. Each pint had cellophane on top of a wooden basket with a rubber band to hold the cellophane on the basket. We got paid 10¢ per flat (12 pints). I was happy if I did 10 flats an hour. We did have to fill each basket and remove leaves, stems & bad berries – underripe, over ripe, moldy, etc.

    But this was a better rate than packing bulk berries where we sat at a sest by a moving belt and picked out leaves, stems, bad berries and such. It bad a quarter per hour.

    Now this was great from my point of view than working on the family dairy farm – stacking bales, riding on the combine bagging barley or on the bailer making sure the knot-tying device did not stick. Or, helping grandma with canning, preserving, pickling, etc. Keep im mind this was New Jersey in the summer – hot & sticky.

  • MarcyTexas

    Congratulations to the workers. This is shameful in our own country to treat farmworkers this way. Basic rights are shade, breaks and water. Then there’s the minimum wage. I’m surprised at Chipotle. They serve all organic, so they should be on board with this.

  • art tanner

    This is a prime example of the news media doing a one sided story. Where did this $12,000 a year figure come from. How many of these people speaking out have ever worked in a tomato field. I retired out of the tomato industry in Florida after 33 years and I say B.S. A good young tomato picker and some older can make $20 an hour harvesting tomatoes. These other charges, such as sexual harassment and not being able to take a break, prove it reporter. Tomato harvesters are paid by the bucket harvested. It is no sweat off the growers back if someone takes a break. This reporter should be ashamed of the light in which he has put the Florida tomato growers. And finally, these harvesters do not work directly for the grower, they work for a labor contractor or crew leader, one of their own.

  • art tanner

    To all of you bleeding hearts, go to a tomato field and look at the workers’ vehicles parked there. And you tell me they can’t make a living but are driving a practically new vehicle. Give me a break.