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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

“From the beginning, we’ve tried to change the imbalance of power that exists between the grower and the worker,” says Lucas Benitez, the CIW’s chief spokesman. “It’s been many years that we’ve hoped for 
this moment.”

The agreement was a startling reversal by the FTGE: In 2007, the exchange was so vehemently opposed to working with the CIW that it imposed a $100,000 fine on any member company that collaborated with the coalition. At that point, the CIW had already gotten a couple of major buyers to agree to pay an extra cent per pound of tomatoes, but since the growers were forbidden from distributing the supplemental wages, the extra pennies languished in an escrow account. In late 2007, Brown called the CIW’s attempts to reform the tomato-growing industry “pretty much near un-American.”

By then, however, the coalition had already set in motion a chain of events that would bring Brown back to the table three years later with a more conciliatory attitude.

How did the coalition do it? Benitez says it followed a simple formula: “Consciousness, plus commitment, equals change.”

Compared to other crops, tomatoes can be difficult.

Mechanized harvesting can damage the delicate fruit, so it can’t be depended upon to deliver presentable tomatoes. The fresh market variety – whether they end up in a grocery basket or a restaurant salad – must be picked by hand. Every winter, during Florida’s tomato-growing season, growers hire 30,000 migrant workers to harvest their crops; 10,000 to 15,000 of them come from southwest Florida near Immokalee.

On a recent November morning, tomato pickers begin to arrive in the parking lot of La Fiesta #3 market, between Second and Third streets just off the main drag in Immokalee, well before the sun rises. There, they await the painted school buses that will transport them to the fields – that is, if they’re chosen for work that day. Pickers may begin their day by sitting for hours alongside the fields waiting for the plants to dry, since a tomato picked while wet can later become mushy. “The buses come at four, four thirty, but it isn’t until nine we can enter the fields to work,” says Jose, a 20-year-old from Guanajuato, Mexico, while he waits for a parked bus to open its doors. According to one grower, the “crew leaders” – the workers’ immediate bosses – arrive early so they can get first pick of the men and women hoping to get work that day.

Some of the buses go to farms as far away as Palmetto (near Tampa) and Homestead (near Miami), so it’s possible for some workers to spend more than four hours each 
day commuting.

For their efforts, Immokalee’s tomato pickers are paid an average of 50 cents per bucket of fruit harvested, which means that to earn minimum wage during a 10-hour workday, they have to pick nearly two and a half tons each. According to the latest federal National Agricultural Workers Survey, the average farmworker’s income falls between $10,000 to $12,500 a year. (This is assuming normal conditions, which are anything but guaranteed in agriculture. In January of last year, for example, Florida’s tomato crop was devastated by a freeze. Afterward, “everyone disappeared” from Immokalee, according to Candlario, a 49-year-old worker from Mexico.) As a result, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported in 2008, “poverty among farmworkers is more than double that of all wage and salary employees.”

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