Our VoiceHealth & Environment

Tomato Pickers in Florida Battle Slavery


Katie Bezrouch • Mar 19, 2009

Tomato pickers in Florida have come a long way in securing workers rights, but the path ahead of them keeps stretching farther.

Immokalee is an area in Collier county, and is the state’s largest farmworker community. The region is predominately Latino (70%), with a high immigrant population where almost 40 percent of people live below the poverty line.

The majority of workers in Immokalee can’t afford a car, so they live in trailers within walking distance of a central parking lot where they can wait in the morning to find work. When and if they do get picked up, they are piled into a bus and driven anywhere from 10 to 100 miles to the field where they will work 10-12 hours under the blistering Florida sunshine. When they arrive, they begin working to fill buckets with unripened green tomatoes. Once the bucket is filled they run it to the truck, and each completed pail fetches 45 cents (on average). They are allowed to eat lunch, but they must do so very quickly, because in order to make minimum wage at today’s rate they have to pick two and a half tons of tomatoes in one day.

In other words, in order to make fifty dollars, they have to pick two tons of tomatoes.

The scenario I have described thus far is typical for farmworkers in Florida. Unfortunately, life in the field for some immigrants is even worse. To this day, there are workers that are held against their will and forced to work for no pay.

This is modern-day slavery in a nation that “abolished” the practice in 1863. Just this past December a violation was brought to trial, it was severe enough for the Chief Assistant US Attorney to call it one of Southwest Florida’s “biggest, ugliest slavery cases ever.”

One of the most successful groups to stand up to these nauseating working conditions is The Coalition of Immokalee Workers. They began organizing in 1993, when a small group of workers gathered intending to create a force strong enough to better their jobs and community.

Their first victory was in 1998, when they won industry-wide raises of 13-25% by organizing a historic 230 mile march across the state and a community-wide labor strike. From 1997-2001 they helped “[B]ring three modern-day slavery operations to justice, resulting in freedom for over 500 workers from debt bondage.” They have earned national and international recognition for their accomplishments, including receiving prestigious 2003 Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award (the first time the award went to a US-based organization in its 20 years of existence).

Today, they are asking for you to help them put an end to the slavery in Florida.

The Immokalee Workers are asking the Governor of Florida, Charlie Crist, to stand up for human rights. In the “Breaking News ” section of the Coalition’s website they state that “Despite seven major prosecutions in the past decade, not once has the governor of our state - the chief executive who wields tremendous public and political influence over the state’s agricultural industry - said a single word to condemn this most egregious human rights violation.”

These people have been in an economic crisis for decades, and it’s time for a change. Email Governor Crist today and tell him to take a stand against slavery.

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