DUSTIN TONEY – The Corsair
November 24, 2010
The Workers Solidarity Alliance (WSA) and the Progressive Student Alliance (PSA), a political group based at the University of West Florida, staged a picket Nov. 14 at the Publix Supermarket on 9th Avenue. The picket was organized in conjunction with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) and their Fair Food Campaign.
The CIW is calling on produce suppliers and distributors to agree to a one-cent-per-pound pay raise for tomato farmers in Immokalee, Fla., in addition to a code of conduct which guarantees workers are being treated humanely.
So far, the campaign has reached agreements with leading food retailers, including McDonald’s, Burger King, Subway, Whole Foods, Compass Group, Aramark and with three Florida tomato growers, including the state’s third largest supplier, East Coast Growers and Packers. As a whole, the CIW has aided the Department of Justice with convicting six slavery operations and the accumulated liberation of over 1,000 workers.
“We decided to put this campaign together to help educate the general public about the reality that slavery continues to happen in this country, particularly to farm workers here in Florida,” said Oscar Otzoy, a member from the CIW. “Unfortunately, even though these abuses we are talking about are well documented and widely known facts and nine different major corporations have signed agreements with us.”
“Publix is refusing to do these very simple things we are asking them to do, despite the fact that they claim to be a good force in the community. We are calling on them to step up and take responsibility for the conditions that farm workers are facing.”
What conditions are the workers facing? In a 2008 report, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported that “poverty among farm workers is more than double that of all wage and salary employees” and considering the additional risks of farm labor from other industrial work, such as exposure to pesticides, inadequate sanitary facilities (despite harvesting food commonly found in the nation’s largest grocery chains) and substandard housing, they, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, “not only lost ground relative to other workers in the private sector, they lost ground absolutely.”
Unlike most professions which are covered under labor laws dating back to the New Deal, farm workers also have no right to overtime pay, no right to employment benefits, and no right to collectively bargain with their employers.
To make matters worse, the average pay rate for a 32-pound bucket of tomatoes is 50 cents. In order to maintain an income equal to minimum wage, over 2.25 tons of tomatoes must be picked in a 10-hour workday by a single worker. The pay rate of farm workers has remained stagnant, if not dwindled heavily in the last five years. The rate for the same work in 1980 would pay 40 cents. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, if this wage had kept up just with inflation, then workers today would be getting paid $1.06 per 32 pounds of tomatoes. If Publix and the CIW come to an agreement, the average pay for the same amount would be 82 cents.
“We want Publix to improve the sub-poverty wages farm workers in Florida currently earn, but we also want them to work together with us to implement a stringent code that gives workers respect and a voice in the agricultural industry which includes zero-tolerance for abuses such as slavery,” said Otzoy.
Though it is certainly not the norm, there have been nine convictions of forced labor in the last 13 years, most of them involving Florida farms. In 2007, employed once by Frank Johns, former Chairman of the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association, the lobby for Florida’s extremely large agricultural industry, Ronald Evans, was convicted on drug conspiracy and financial re-structuring, amongst other charges, after recruiting then trapping homeless Americans from shelters. At Palatka, Fla., Evans set up a labor camp where he “perpetually indebted” workers with the use of food, alcohol and cocaine, according to a press release from the Department of Justice.
In December 2008, Cesar and Geovanni Navarratee received a 12-year sentence on charges of conspiracy, holding workers in involuntary servitude. The defendants admitted to beating workers, forcing them to work and locking them in trucks to prevent their escape. Some of those enslaved workers labored in fields for Six L’s (based in Immokalee) and Pacific Tomato Growers (based in Palmetto). Publix sustained purchases from these two companies up to a year after the persecutions were made said the CIW.
“Slavery still happens and a lot of human trafficking is involved with this,” said Lee Pryor, organizer of the event and member of the Workers Solidarity Alliance and UWF’s Progressive Student Alliance. “We are attempting to get the student and consumer base to get out into the community to help the struggle. There are a couple of methods locals can use to influence Publix’s decisions. We don’t want consumers to stop buying products, but we want them to support what the CIW is doing and show Publix that they want their company to accept that agreement.”
Publix Media & Community Relations Manager Dwaine Stevens said in an interview, “We don’t get involved with labor disputes, but we do encourage growers and the CIW to come a resolution. There are issues with labor and working conditions in which they CIW has come to resolutions and we applaud those efforts, but we are a retail grocer and it is not our business to get involved with our sppliers’ labor issues.”
Those wanting to help the CIW can send Publix managers letters, send pre-made post cards directly to the CEO of Publix, or join the next picket on Dec. 11. To get this information or for any particular questions e-mail Lee Pryor at Progressive Student Alliance at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit the Workers Solidarity Alliance website at wsapensacola.com. For more information about the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and their campaign, visit ciw-online.org.