Apr 25, 2014

Laura's Blog: NYT Portrays Achievements of Immokalee Workers--Can it be Done in Mexico?

This article from the New York Times takes a close look at the great achievements of the Florida farmworkers organization, Coalition of Immokalee Workers. Although the organization and its Campaign for Fair Food work on the national level, it is an experience that the Americas Program has been watching closely for years, due to its success with grassroots organizing for farm justice, an end to sexual harassment and defense of immigrant rights.

I visited briefly in 2008 and hope to make another visit to learn more about this experience and write more. Many of the workers affected are immigrants and the issues they address--immigration, worker justice and transnational food production--are at the heart of our Program.

Of course, a major priority is the possibility of obliging transnational retailers to apply the same or similar terms of fair and humane treatment to their suppliers here in Mexico. Walmart now controls a huge part of the food sales market and wields power over supply chains, and by extension, conditions in the production and industrialization of food.

Conditions for day laborers in the agroexport industry are among the worst imaginable in states including Sinaloa and Sonora. As we approach the harvest season, hundreds of impoverished, often indigenous, workers will travel north from Guerrero, Veracruz, Oaxaca and other states to work in the fields. Entire families will endure slave-like conditions in some cases, for a pittance. Several weeks ago, I wrote about a case of migrants allegedly kidnapped (a fact reported by the Mexican Army and later disputed by the Institute of Migration) and the grape harvest in Sonora.

In addition to the Fair Food Program, the CIW has developed an anti-slavery campaign that should also be a model for Mexico. To get an idea of the problem and legal efforts to confront it, here is a case from their website:

U.S. vs. Flores — In 1997, Miguel Flores and Sebastian Gomez were sentenced to 15 years each in federal prison on slavery, extortion, and firearms charges, amongst others. Flores and Gomez had a workforce of over 400 men and women in Florida and South Carolina, harvesting vegetables and citrus. The workers, mostly indigenous Mexicans and Guatemalans, were forced to work 10-12 hour days, 6 days per week, for as little as $20 per week, under the watch of armed guards. Those who attempted escape were assaulted, pistol-whipped, and even shot. The case was brought to federal authorities after five years of investigation by escaped workers and CIW members.
This is another example of how organized workers can compel the state to do its job of enforcing labor and human rights law.

The New York Times article titled, "In Florida Tomato Fields, a Penny Buys Progress" details the organizing efforts and the achievements. It is a story that gives hope, as well as nitty-gritty advice on effective organizing:

IMMOKALEE, Fla. — Not long ago, Angelina Velasquez trudged to a parking lot at 5 each morning so a crew leader’s bus could drop her at the tomato fields by 6. She often waited there, unpaid — while the dew dried — until 10 a.m., when the workers were told to clock in and start picking.
Back then, crew leaders often hectored and screamed at the workers, pushing them to fill their 32-pound buckets ever faster in this area known as the nation’s tomato capital. For decades, the fields here have had a reputation for horrid conditions. Many migrant workers picked without rest breaks, even in 95-degree heat. Some women complained that crew leaders groped them or demanded sex in exchange for steady jobs.
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