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Harvest of Hope

Against all odds, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers is changing the agricultural industry

Photo: Photos by L.E. Soltis, License: N/A, Created: 2010:11:18 14:45:48

Photos by L.E. Soltis

All in a day’s work: Before joining the CIW staff, workers (l-r) Mathieu Beaucicot, Leonel Perez, Silvia Perez, Nely Rodriguez and Cruz Salucio earned a living picking tomatoes in farms surrounding Immokalee

After driving 45 minutes inland from Naples through the Florida wilderness, you arrive in Immokalee. Drive for one more minute, and you’ve already left. It’s a town that rises before the sun and has more churches than it does bars; a place where it’s not uncommon to see grown men riding children’s bicycles and people delivering television sets on foot. Most properties in Immokalee are lined with chain-link fences, which some residents use to hang secondhand clothing for sale to passersby. Mornings are punctuated by the crowing of roosters, and occasionally, you can hear the squawk of the black buzzards that frequent the town’s trash bins.

To a newcomer, this mostly Latino town of nearly 20,000 people doesn’t seem particularly inspiring, yet over the past decade writers and photographers from the New Yorker, National Geographic, the Independent and other weighty publications have been drawn to a story that’s been unfolding here. Immokalee is not the site of a hidden natural wonder nor is it the birthplace of a quirky celebrity or serial killer. Rather, it’s the headquarters for an activist group that’s gotten the ear of some of the most powerful politicians and businesspeople in the country. In the process, the group has been praised and cursed, ridiculed and respected, but most importantly, it’s been noticed.

Though most of its fame comes from exposing “modern-day slavery” operations, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers – colloquially known as the CIW – has made a name for itself by getting some of the country’s biggest food corporations to cave to its demands. Last month the organization, which is made up of activists and laborers who have banded together to improve working conditions and wages for the town’s migrant farmworkers, won a hard-fought battle against Florida’s tomato-growing companies, which supply 90 percent of the nation’s domestically grown tomatoes during the winter.

On Nov. 16, the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange – a trade group that oversees nearly 
all of the large growing companies in the state – was the latest organization to surrender to the CIW. Given that it’s the members of the FTGE who sign the workers’ paychecks, this was by far the CIW’s most important victory yet. “We’ve agreed to work with the CIW in establishing new standards of verifiable social accountability for the tomato industry as a whole,” said Reggie Brown, executive vice president of the FTGE, at a press conference at the coalition’s headquarters that day.

Brown announced that the exchange’s member companies would pay workers an extra cent per pound of tomatoes picked, a raise paid for by big buyers like McDonalds, Subway and Aramark. Though it seems small, the raise would mean as much as a 71 percent increase in the farmworkers’ paychecks. The growers also promised to adopt a code of conduct, mostly written by the CIW, as a way to address decades of verbal, physical and even sexual harassment of workers by employers. Per the agreement, follow-through on the new financial and ethical commitments will be periodically verified by an auditing firm of the coalition’s choosing. In addition, CIW staff will be allowed to visit the growers’ farms to educate workers about their rights.

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