Florida’s farm workers perform hard labor for low wages to provide fresh produce for the public; but they also face verbal and physical abuse, sexual harassment and forced labor on the job.
The Youth and Young Adult Network of the National Farm Worker Ministry has been protesting outside of local stores, such as Wendy’s and Publix, to not only bring their plight to the attention of the public, but also to get these companies to agree to a partnership that makes life better for those who put food on the nation’s tables.
The working conditions and wages of those working in the Florida tomato fields is not a recent issue, however. The matter was first brought to light in Edward R. Murrow’s 1960 CBS television documentary Harvest of Shame.
The nation was outraged of how the workers were treated then, and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a human rights organization that YAYA-NFWM works closely with, is still working to improve the conditions today.
Immokalee is one of the major centers of tomato growing in the United States and the birth of the CIW when it began in 1993.
Since then, it introduced the Fair Food Program in 2011, a partnership with retail produce buyers including Subway, Walmart and McDonalds that holds growers accountable to provide workers a fair wage and basic human rights.
By opting into the Fair Food Program, a buyer agrees to adhere to the Fair Food Code of Conduct, which agrees to pay growers a $0.01 per pound premium on tomatoes that the growers pass on to the workers.
Despite $20 million in Fair Food premiums being paid into the program from January 2011 to October 2015, the average farmworker’s salary ranges from $15,000 to $17,499, according to the National Agricultural Workers Survey. For such reason, organizations such as YAYA and CIW are continuing to fight for the rights of these farmworkers.
Other rights for workers under the Fair Food Code of Conduct include zero tolerance for forced labor, verbal or physical abuse, sexual harassment, and the right to safe working conditions.
Carlos Guillermo, a UCF alumnus and current candidate for the Florida House of Representatives, agrees with YAYA’s initiatives.
“Companies who participate in the Fair Food Program are sending a powerful message that they put people before profits and respect the dignity of their workers,” Guillermo said. “In Florida, too many farmworkers are forced to endure horrific working conditions that are simply unacceptable in this day in age.”
Although the program has educated more than 20,000 workers face-to-face and has reached more than 100,000 through written and video materials, according to the Fair Food Standards, some companies, including Wendy’s and Publix, still refuse to sign on to the program.
Both Wendy’s and Publix have seen protests from CIW-affiliated organizations, including one by YAYA outside of the Wendy’s on University Boulevard and Rouse Road on Sept. 28., outside their establishments.
The picket, which took place to encourage Wendy’s to join the Fair Food Program and agree to the Fair Food Code of Conduct, was part of the CIW and the Student/Farm Worker Alliance’s national week of action called “Schooling Wendy’s.”
Although Wendy’s did not allow its employees to accept a letter from YAYA urging them to join, UCF alumnus and Florida YAYA state coordinator Nico Gumbs said the local manager seemed receptive.
“She was very receptive to Julia, a farm worker who went inside with her message,” Gumbs said. “She was able to have a dialogue, but could not make a claim on behalf of Wendy’s.”
Although Wendy’s still has not agreed to the program, that won’t stop YAYA from continuing fighting for the rights of farmworkers.
They are planning a picket at Publix Nov. 21 and will be posting the exact location and time on their website.
Gumbs urges people to participate and insists that this is a cause worth fighting for.
“There are still people hand picking our food every day, and they don’t always have the ability to feed themselves,” he said. “What we really need to ask ourselves is where is our food coming from and how can we pay back those workers.”
Ryan Brown is a Contributing Writer for the Central Florida Future.