“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.
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.