Imagine working under the blistering sun until sunset in the tomato fields of Florida. Most of these workers get paid 40 cents for each bucket that is filled with 32 pounds of tomatoes and only earn $7,500 a year when $12,000 per year is consider to be on the poverty line.
The Coalition of Immokalee Workers, or the CIW, has represented the struggle of tomato-pickers all around the country, specifically workers from Immokalee fields, for the past 20 years. They have marched and protested for better working conditions and an improvement in their sub-poverty wages.
And in late 1999, the CIW launched a nationwide boycott against Taco Bell, the major corporate buyer of Immokalee tomatoes. The CIW is pursuing a campaign against Taco Bell to initiate dialogue to propose an increase in the workers’ wages.
Along with other civil rights organizations from across the country, USF’s Mexican American Student Association wants to raise awareness of the Immokalee workers. A growing organization within the university, MASA consists of 15 members.
“(We) just want people to acknowledge that we need to treat the (farmworkers) better because they are doing jobs we would not consider doing ourselves,” said Carime Hernandez, president for MASA.
For the past three years, the CIW along with MASA have asked to have meetings with the CEOs of Taco Bell.
In March of 2000, MASA joined the CIW as they rallied on the streets of Orlando. In February, Hernandez said, MASA organized an awareness tour that went from USF to California.
Finally, in March of this year, after much persistence from the CIW, some CEOs from Taco Bell met with the top representatives of CIW.
“They sat down and assured us that they wanted to help the CIW’s cause, but nothing concrete has come out of that the meeting,” said Hernandez
Senior Rene Ramirez, also a member of MASA, said the CIW is growing slowly.
“They have gone all over the country to protest against Taco Bell. They’ve been to Tallahassee, to the Mid-West, to even California and have visited fields where workers are in the same working situation as the Immokalee tomato-pickers,” Ramirez said.
He also said he believes that traveling around the country raises awareness about the issues affecting the farmworkers. He said keeping the commitment from organizations such as the CIW and MASA would eventually bring change to a regrettable situation.
Another upcoming project the CIW is planning, along with MASA, is a Thanksgiving Retreat in Immokalee, Florida.
The event will bring students across the country for the three-day holiday weekend. They will be shown the tomato fields and meet the tomato farm workers.
“It will expose the students to the present working situation at these particular fields,” Hernandez said.
But for Ramirez and Hernandez, this cause hits very close to home. Ramirez’s parents have worked on the tomato fields of Florida for more than 35 years.
“I feel it because (my family) is still working day to day under the scorching sun,” Ramirez said.
“A lot of people don’t know how hard tomato-pickers have to work.”
In addition, Ramirez volunteers every summer in the same tomato field where his father works. Ramirez said he feels compelled to give back to the community that has given him so much. Hernandez’s parents used to work on the tomato fields, as well, and had taken her as a little girl to see what it was like to work under these conditions.
“My parents wanted me to realize how hard that line of work is,” Hernandez said.
She also said that by seeing firsthand the conditions in which they worked inspired her to participate in campaigns such as the Taco Bell boycott.
Along with sub-poverty wages, the Immokalee farmworkers are exposed to sweatshop-like conditions. By paying a penny more for every pound of tomatoes that Taco Bell buys from the tomato-packing companies, the tomato-pickers’ salaries can almost be doubled, and they can earn a better living wage. The farm workers have only received a 5-cent-per-bucket increase in their pay since 1975, said Hernandez.
“Workers don’t get paid overtime or sick leave and are not covered by any type of health insurance; they have no benefits whatsoever,” Hernandez said.
Contact Vanessa Garnica at firstname.lastname@example.org