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Tomatoes of Wrath
Posted on Sep 26, 2011
By Chris Hedges
It is 6 a.m. in the parking lot outside the La Fiesta supermarket in Immokalee, Fla. Rodrigo Ortiz, a 26-year-old farmworker, waits forlornly in the half light for work in the tomato fields. White-painted school buses with logos such as “P. Cardenas Harvesting” are slowly filling with fieldworkers. Knots of men and a few women, speaking softly in Spanish and Creole, are clustered on the asphalt or seated at a few picnic tables waiting for crew leaders to herd them onto the buses, some of which will travel two hours to fields. Roosters are crowing as the first light of dawn rises over the cacophony. Men shovel ice into 10-gallon plastic containers from an ice maker next to the supermarket, which opens at 3:30 a.m. to sell tacos and other food to the workers. The containers—which they lug to pickup trucks—provide water for the pickers in the sweltering, humid fields where temperatures soar to 90 degrees and above.
Ortiz, a short man in a tattered baseball cap and soiled black pants that are too long and spill over the tops of his worn canvas sneakers, is not fortunate this day. By 7 a.m. the last buses leave without him. He heads back to the overcrowded trailer he shares with several other men. There are always workers left behind at these predawn pickup sites where hundreds congregate in the hopes of getting work. Nearly 90 percent of the workers are young, single immigrant men, and at least half lack proper documents or authorization to work in the United States.
Harvesting tomatoes is an endeavor that comes with erratic and unpredictable hours, weeks with overtime and weeks with little to do and no guarantees about wages. Once it starts to rain, workers are packed back onto the buses and sent home, their workday abruptly at an end. Ortiz and the other laborers congregate at the pickup points every morning never sure if there will be work. And when they do find daywork they are paid only for what they pick.
“I only had three days of work this week,” Ortiz says mournfully. “I don’t know how I will pay my rent.”
Ortiz, who along with many others among these migrant workers sends about $100 home to Mexico every month to support elderly parents, works under conditions in these fields that replicate medieval serfdom and at times descend into outright slavery. He lives far below the poverty line. He has no job security, no workers’ compensation, no disability insurance, no paid time off, no access to medical care, Social Security, Medicaid or food stamps and no protection from the abusive conditions in the fields. The agricultural industry has a death rate nearly six times higher than most other industries, and the Environmental Protection Agency estimates that of the 2 million farmworkers in the United States 300,000 suffer pesticide poisoning every year.
But this may change as one of the most important battles in the history of migrant labor is launched by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW). If this battle succeeds it will nearly double the wages of the farmworkers who labor in the $600 million tomato-growing industry. A victory over the supermarket chains also would hold out the possibility of significantly alleviating the draconian conditions that permit forced labor, crippling poverty and egregious human rights abuses, including documented cases of slavery, in the nation’s tomato fields. If the CIW campaign—which is designed to pressure supermarket chains including Publix, Trader Joe’s, Wal-Mart, Kroger, and Ahold brands Giant and Stop & Shop to sign the CIW Fair Food Agreement—fails, however, it threatens to roll back the modest gains made by farmworkers. It depends on us.
“We are standing on the threshold of achieving significant change in the agricultural industry,” Marc Rodrigues, with the Student/Farmworker Alliance, tells me later in the day at the CIW office in Immokalee. “But if the supermarkets do not participate and support it then it will not go any further. Their lack of participation threatens to undermine what the workers and their allies have accomplished. They represent a tremendous amount of tomato purchasing. They wield a lot of influence over conditions in the field. For those growers not enamored of the concept of workers attaining rights and being treated with dignity, they will know that there is always a market for their tomatoes with no questions asked, where nothing is governed by a code of conduct or transparency. If we succeed, this will help lift farmworkers, who do one of the most important, dangerous and undervalued jobs in our society, out of grinding poverty into one where they can have a slightly more decent and normal life and provide for their families.”
The next major mobilization in the campaign will take place at noon Oct. 21 outside Trader Joe’s corporate headquarters in Monrovia, Calif. This will follow a week of local actions to target supermarkets across the country. To thwart the campaign, the public relations departments of Trader Joe’s, Publix and other supermarkets are churning out lies and half truths, as well as engaging in unsettling acts of intimidation and surveillance. Publix sent out an employee posing as a documentary filmmaker to record the activities of the organizers.
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