ORLANDO | Rising against economic and social struggles isn’t anything new for the farmworkers of Florida. It takes faith to “Keep fighting to guarantee basic human rights,” said Silvia Perez, senior staff member and leader of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. People from all over the world, specifically those from Central and South American countries, come to the U.S. to make a better living for themselves and their families by working on tomato farms for giant fast-food chains.
Although thankful to have these chances, some of Florida’s farmworkers still face various obstacles prohibiting safe-working conditions because of the resistance by certain food providers to accept responsibility. As a result, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a human-rights organization based in Immokalee, have developed many programs to combat workforce inadequacies by ensuring equal opportunities.
The Fair Food Program is the driving force of the coalition that promises Florida’s farmworkers fair rights. Directed by Perez whose resume spans 11 years filled with vast experience as a fieldworker and now as a civil rights advocate, she knows of the potential nightmares that an employer who doesn’t endorse the program can inflict on their employees. Speaking to the Florida Catholic through a translator, Perez expounded on past problems farmworkers faced without the Fair Food Program and how their diligence for social reform has improved over the years.
“(Prior to the Fair Food Program), it was normal to face sexual harassment, forced labor, and low wages,” Perez said. “For any women working in the fields, they faced very long days.”
The manual labor required for a farmworker on one of Florida’s many tomato fields endured harsh conditions, as well. “They carried buckets of 32 pounds,” Perez said, concerning the daily jobs of many of the farmworkers who didn’t get paid by the hour—but by the bucket. The program has implemented regulations on companies to pay farmworkers an extra penny per pound, rewarding them for their hard work.
Laboring long hours in the Florida sun without access to shade and drinking water was typical for farmworkers. “Before 2010, there were no breaks in the field,” Perez said. “And the water to drink might be dirty.”
But that changed with the coalition’s creation of the Fair Food Program that demanded supervisors provide routine breaks with areas to rest in the shade and clean drinking water for the farmworkers.
If a worker suffered an injury while on the job or didn’t come to work due to an illness, it was likely the job would not be there for them the next day. “People had no rights. They would lose pay and then get fired,” Perez said of the uncertainty to keep a job. But the Fair Food Program put a stop to that. Now, there is no threat of losing their jobs if they miss a day’s work.
Before the program was established, it was common for the farmworkers to bear sexual harassment from their supervisors Improvements to the system have been designed to allow any situations that needed attention, including a 24-hour hotline for complaints, such as “if a crew leader is harassing a worker, they can call the hotline and report them.”
Historically, the coalition has made major progress for farmworkers around the country. In the early 2000s, the coalition worked to convince fast-food chains, such as McDonalds, Burger King and Taco Bell, to join the Fair Food Program. The coalition served as a major influence for human-rights for changing the way those corporations view the respect they have for the people who pick the vegetables their customers eat.
However, Wendy’s, the American fast-food chain, has refused to participate in the program for some time now. “They don’t want the responsibility of treating their farmworkers with dignity and respect,” Perez said. Even with the pressure from the coalition, Wendy’s chose to purchase tomatoes directly from Mexico and Canada and American greenhouse industries, rather than join the Fair Food Program.
But there is hope for change. The “4 for Fair Food” tour specifically organized college protests aimed at Wendy’s fast-food locales. Recently, The Gainesville City Commission passed a unanimous pledge urging both Wendy’s on the University of Florida’s campus to join the program. This resolution has overwhelming sponsorship from the university’s student-body to cancel its contract with Wendy’s. On March 14, 2019, the coalition held a massive gathering at the University of Florida to highlight the potential injustices that Wendy’s continues to make for its agricultural workers. “We went to gain support against Wendy’s,” Perez said of her presence at the Gainesville campus. “Students have a lot of power.”
Regarding the CIW’s calls for action, a spokesperson for Wendy’s stated, “We do not believe that joining their program is the only way to act responsibly, and we pride ourselves on our relationships with industry-leading suppliers who share our commitment to quality, integrity and ethics … This move further strengthens our commitment to responsible sourcing practices by providing safe, indoor working conditions, shelter from the elements and environmental contaminants, reduced water and land use burdens, and a significantly reduced need for chemical pesticides.”
Only time will tell if Wendy’s will support the Fair Food Program. Perez is hopeful and keeps the faith. “We have always had so much support from people of faith,” Perez said. “They have a very big role to play in our campaign.”