Students protest for farmworkers’ rights
Published: Tuesday, September 4, 2012
Updated: Tuesday, September 4, 2012 00:09
The smiling faces and cheerful exchanges found outside Publix Supermarket on 53rd Street masked the underlying tension, as protesters united during Labor Day weekend to give a voice to laborers often invisible from dialogue — farmworkers.
Though Publix managers told protesters not to set foot on the store’s private property, protestors hoped to finally get the message of fair wages and treatment across by standing on the fringe of its property.
“These groups of farmworkers are trying to achieve their goal of increased living conditions and wages through the Campaign for Fair Food,” Cristina Castillo, a senior majoring in education and one of the organizers of Tampa Bay Fair Food organization, said.
The protesters hope for Publix to join several large corporations such as Subway, Burger King, Whole Foods Market, Taco Bell and McDonald’s in adopting a standard of supporting fair treatment for farmworkers, by increasing the amount of paid for tomatoes by one penny per pound.
By agreeing to the Fair Food Program, which groups have been hoping Publix would do for several years, the extra penny per pound would trickle down to workers through the growers who employ them.
Oscar Otzoy, who worked in a field for three years and still works summer seasons, protested. Before the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) was formed, he said, workers were paid 50 cents for every 32 lbs. of tomatoes picked — the same rate since 1978, despite inflation and economic changes. According to the CIW’s website, the average farmworker earns $12,000 a year — well below the national poverty line.
“The conditions could be called modern-day slavery with long hours, no overtime and fear of speaking out,” Otzoy said. “There have been cases with workers being chained or locked in trailers. When we get too weak or old they just stop using us and let other people do it. They strip us of our humanity by treating us like machines.”
According to a statement released on Publix’s website, “Since first approached by the CIW three years ago, we have consistently viewed this issue as a labor dispute.”
But though the numbers were small, the protesters’ spirits were high.
“Students have a lot more power than they think,” Alayne Unterberger, a professor at FIU and a USF graduate, said. “They have buying power and are educated.”
The protest at Publix on 53rd Street was one of general had at Publix Supermarkets in Florida and Georgia over Labor Day weekend.