Friday, July 8, 2011

Guest Post by the Hubster: Part 2

However, this is not the only economic struggle for the workers.  According to the Department of Labor, “Farm workers receive no overtime pay, paid holidays or vacation, health insurance, pension, sick leave, right to organize and join unions” (USDOL, “Facts and Figures”).  When this is coupled with their low wages, it can be economically devastating to their families  for a worker to miss work, whether it was the common cold or something much more debilitating.  “According to a U.S. Department of Labor survey in March 2000, farm pickers make an average of $7,500 a year without health care, overtime or sick leave” ( - “Farmworkers Plan Strike”).  The Department of Labor also reported that the National Agricultural Workers Survey (NAWS) established the median income for a farm worker’s household was $7,500-$10,000 per year (USDOL, “Facts and Figures”).  In 1997, the Federal Register reported that the poverty line for a family of four living in the United States was $16,050, and for a family of three was $13,330 (USHHS, Federal Register).  It is obvious that a farm worker’s family lived well below the poverty line for our country.  If they are already living in poverty, how are they to afford health insurance, or get help when sick?  It is a double whammy for the worker when they are being paid ridiculously low wages and get no benefits to help.  It can be similar to playing roulette for a family when there is no health insurance, paid sick leave, vacation time or other benefits.  Not only will the worker miss work, and therefore miss the paycheck, but also have to pay a lot of money out of pocket to get well.

Working in these kinds of conditions, and for sub-poverty wages drudges up images of sweatshops.  Benitez says that conditions for some farm workers here “are really no different from the conditions of Nike factory workers in Asia. The only difference is that we are here.”  (Bacon, “No Quiero”).  Simon Billenness of Trillium Asset Management makes this same comparison in the Colorado Daily in 2001.  “To many Americans, the term ‘sweatshop’ may conjure up images of overseas workers in deplorable conditions.  What they may not see is that similar working conditions exist in the United States” (“How Tomatoes Make Their Way”).  Eric Schlosser, the author of Fast Food Nation, made a similar comparison: 

“The farm workers who pick [fruits and vegetables] are among the nation’s poorest.  In the same way that Nike has been held accountable for the mistreatment of the Asian workers who make its sneakers, major companies like Taco Bell must be held accountable for the mistreatment of the American farm workers who pick their fruits and vegetables.  Just an extra penny a pound could make the difference between a life of poverty and a living wage.” (“How Tomatoes Make Their Way”)

Former President Jimmy Carter took it a step further than using the imagery of sweatshop and called it slavery:

“I have followed with concern for a number of years the appalling working conditions in the Florida-based tomato industry. While production costs in the industry have increased over the last 25 years, wages have been effectively stagnant, as giant cooperative buying mechanisms hold prices down. Conditions are so bad in parts of the industry that there have been two separate prosecutions for slavery in recent years.” (“Statements of Support”)

To fix these two major conditions, and the additional issues that were associated with them, there were major hurdles and obstacles that they would have to overcome.  To begin with, workers were fearful of losing their jobs, or even worse, being deported if they stood up against their contractors.  They realized that because of the undocumented status of many of them, they were not able to go to any authority to get their conditions and wages corrected (Murthy, “The Battle Fields”).  Therefore, they knew that the changes had to come from themselves.  They were going to have to lean and depend on each other both financially and in physical numbers.  It was the spirit of change among the workers that helped them to organize together.  With the dedication and help of workers like Lucas Benitez and others, this was the birth of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), the group that would lead the charge against Taco Bell and YUM!.  According to Benitez, “This is what changed the balance of power.  The bosses would no longer be confronted with one worker, but instead they would have to confront the entire group” (Murthy, “The Battle Fields”).  This is a reality that  Dennis Jacobsen notes in his book, Doing Justice. “Organizers know that power comes from essentially two sources: organized people and organized money” (Jacobsen 39).  Now, the workers of the Immokalee fields had both.

Being organized gave them the strength needed to face other hurdles that needed jumping.  The workers had made the stance against the contractor who beat the seventeen year old, and had made several requests to the growers to improve their conditions and wages.  Though they were able to get the violence against them to stop, they were getting nowhere when it came to the economic conditions of their struggle.  According to Benitez, “For years, we directly confronted the growers.  But we realized that confronting them directly really wasn’t the most intelligent tactic” (Murthy, “The Battle Fields”).  The contractors would simply place the blame on those higher up in the supply chain and tell the workers that they themselves were being “squeezed” economically (Murthy, “The Battle Fields”).  So the workers, through CIW, set out to meet with the buyers and place their struggles before them.  “The problem was they had no way to connect the tomatoes they picked to any specific company.  Contracts between buyers and growers are considered competitive information and kept secret” (Murthy, “The Battle Fields”). 

Link to Part 1

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