Come With Me Into the Fields

BREAKTHROUGHS ON immigration reform will make life easier for some Latino immigrants, but in the sweltering, often-toxic fields where farm workers toil each summer from Maine to California, conditions can still be dehumanizing and dangerous. There is a silver lining, however. With the burgeoning growth of the nation's Latino population, there are more advocates than ever working to improve the plight of the men, women, and often children who do hard labor on our nation's farms.

With a mostly young, deeply committed staff, the Florida-based Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) is doing solid grassroots work to make life better for workers in the state's tomato industry. With cooperation from 11 food retail and food service corporations, CIW has implemented the Campaign for Fair Food, which has brought modest wage increases, worker protections, and grievance procedures to farms that produce 90 percent of the state's tomato crop.

Using a worker-led administrative structure and significant public pressure, CIW has brought companies such as McDonald's, Burger King, Pizza Hut, and KFC into its program that asks corporate partners to kick in an extra penny per pound for the tomatoes they buy. That premium is passed on to growers to increase worker pay.

Elbin Perez, 23, a farm worker from Guatemala, has been working in the U.S. for six years, sending part of his wages back home to his parents and five siblings. As a CIW member, Perez leads "worker-to-worker education programs." Those trainings educate workers about CIW's code of conduct, which growers have agreed to uphold. Reforms include use of time clocks, guaranteed minimum wage, and water and shade breaks.

Perez said prior to the implementation of CIW's reforms, he witnessed many hardships in the fields, including wage theft, unsafe conditions, and sexual harassment of women workers. Perez told Sojourners it has "made an enormous difference to be part of the coalition."

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