THE HISTORY BEHIND MIGRANT WORKERS IN IMMOKALEE, FLORIDA AND THE CIW
We all enjoy the luxury of consuming fresh fruits and vegetables from our plates on a daily basis. We rarely question where it comes from, and often ignore the gruesome reality behind the sacrifices made to provide such a diverse agricultural diet. Beneath all the produce we have grown accustomed to enjoying, lies a deep, dreadful history involving abuse and discrimination.
For years, there has been an ongoing battle against what is considered to be modern-day slavery in the agricultural industry. Thousands of workers nationwide spend hours per day working on fields for long hours with little pay. Immokalee, Florida produces some of the largest harvests and is essential to Florida's economy. Yet for years, the workers who put forth their utmost efforts to make this industry thrive, have often been ignored and denied basic human rights.
Immokalee was originally occupied by the Calusa Indians, and centuries later, was seized by the Seminole tribe, who set up temporary camps during hunting season. At first, they depended on alligators in the swamps for food. However, the swamps soon drained, sparking a new era of agriculture. By 1872, a mix of hunters, trappers, cowmen, missionaries and Indian traders established a permanent settlement.
In 1921, the Atlantic Coast Line Railway extended its service south and opened an overland route to Immokalee for trade and communication. Immigrants then traveled to Immokalee from Europe, the Caribbean and Latin America to work on the farms. Today, the region grows one- third of all U.S. tomatoes, and produces 90 percent of our winter tomatoes.
The 1960 documentary, "Harvest of Shame," uncovered some of the gruesome truths that occurred on these fields. Workers told stories of beatings, sexual harassment, unfairly low wages, exposure to sun in the field and extremely poor living conditions. As the agricultural industry grew in Florida, Immokalee's agricultural farms continued these abusive practices, committing some of the worst human rights violations in the U.S.
In 1993, agricultural workers united to start a foundation to fight for their rights. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) is a worker-based human rights organization built to fight the human rights violations committed against farm workers internationally. Over the course of 20 years, the CIW has grown to international recognition for its achievements in social responsibility, human trafficking and gender-based violence in the workplace.
"Before the Fair Food Program, as a farmworker, we had to confront many different types of abuses," Silvia Perez, former farmworker in Immokalee for 13 years and current leader of the CIW, said. "We didn't have much access to water to drink or wash our hands while on the job, or access to clean bathrooms. As a worker, you weren't really able to speak up and ask for these basic benefits."
Working 10 to 12 hours a day, seven days a week with minimal income, workers often turned to their employers for loans. Employers seized this as an opportunity to secure farmers’ employment in the agricultural industry. For years, the public deemed this as modern-day slavery, yet few people acted against the atrocities that occurred.
"The Fair Food Program has now expanded outside of tomatoes and to other industries and into other states," Yaissy Solis, employee for the Student Farmworker Alliance, said. "It's been very exciting because now, tons of workers have access to these human rights that they didn't have access to before."
The foundation encompasses three overlapping spheres: The Fair Food Program, the Anti- Slavery Campaign and the Campaign for Fair Food. These programs ensure wage increases, zero tolerance for forced labor and sexual violence. It implements preventative measures against sexual harassment, discrimination and wage theft. It also ensures the improvement of health and safety conditions, including shade in the fields.
"We have many new rights under the Fair Food Program," Perez said. "We have the right to access to clean water, access to bathrooms that are accessible to us as workers, access to shade on the job and also access to report abuses."
The CIW works to educate the farm workers of their rights in a working industry. On-the-clock, worker-to-worker "Know Your Rights" sessions and worker education materials are provided, as well as a 24/7 complaint line and rapid resolution.
"Every day, we see more and more allies across the country joining in this movement with us," Perez said. "Our ultimate goal is that across the agricultural industry, workers will have access to the same protections that farmworkers in the tomato industry have today because of this program."
According to the Huffington Post, since 1997, the Justice Department has prosecuted seven cases of slavery in Florida, four of them involving tomato harvesters. In the past 10 to 15 years, more than 1,200 workers have been freed from agricultural slavery harvesters in Florida.
"I've been able to empower my fellow workers to report any type of abuses," Perez said. "I know that many times, workers have that fear, and that fear doesn't allow them to report these types of abuses. It's been great to be able to work with my community to ensure everyone is able to defend their rights."