BUSINESS
04/27/2016 03:17 pm ET Updated Jan 15, 2017

Farm Workers Are Taking On Poor Pay And Conditions -- And Winning

America’s farm workers have been exploited for centuries. A group of Florida tomato pickers is changing that.
<a href="http://www.ciw-online.org/">The Coalition of Immokalee Workers</a>&nbsp;is fighting to get tomato pickers better pay
Winfield Parks via Getty Images
The Coalition of Immokalee Workers is fighting to get tomato pickers better pay and improve their working conditions.

By now, the message of the food movement has rung loud and clear -- eat your vegetables, eat local and get to know your local farmers.

Largely left out of those conversations are many of the workers employed by those local farmers who are responsible for picking or producing those locally-farmed goodies.

There’s a lot to talk about on the subject. Farmworkers in the U.S. earn extremely low wages -- an average annual individual income of $12,500 to $14,999, according to the Department of Labor’s National Agricultural Workers Survey. Most lack health insurance and many work long hours -- more than half of NAWS respondents report working more than 40 hours a week.

Working and housing conditions are also often abysmal, but many farmworkers, most of whom are migrant workers born in Mexico, press on for fear of what might happen to them otherwise -- violence, losing their job, losing their home or worse. As Florida tomato picker Leonel Perez explained through a translator to HuffPost Live in 2013, “Everyone has found a way to make it work, to make it survive.”

Today, a growing group of workers are pushing back and successfully transforming ways of life that some have equated to modern-day slavery. An organization called the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, of which Perez is now a staffer, has fought for better pay and conditions for tomato pickers in Florida and has created a model that is beginning to improve the lives of farmworkers in other parts of the country as well.

After many years of work, the coalition has to date won agreements with 14 major food retailers, including Whole Foods, Walmart, McDonald’s and Subway, to only work with tomato suppliers who participate in and meet the requirements outlined by the organization’s Fair Food Program.

That means better pay for workers -- thanks largely to the penny-per-pound premium paid by participating buyers. Among the program's other requirements is a zero-tolerance policy on forced labor, child labor, violence and sexual assault, required access to the education sessions led by CIW organizers so that workers can better understand their rights, as well as a third-party complaint resolution mechanism and ongoing audits to ensure compliance.

All the changes have made a big difference for the workers over the four growing seasons they’ve been in effect, according to CIW organizer Gerardo Reyes Chávez. All told, 90 percent of the tomato farms in Florida are now participating in the program and annual pay for pickers at participating growers is about $17,000.

“[It’s] because workers are at the center of it,” Reyes told The Huffington Post. “We are empowered to use the complaint system to report anything we identify in the fields, any abuse or situations that need to be fixed, and we’re protected when we do that.”

The program has also expanded to include tomato growers in six other states -- Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland and New Jersey. And the workers’ stories have inspired actress Eva Longoria to produce a documentary, plus accolades from former presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter and one presidential hopeful -- a recent Bernie Sanders campaign ad featured the program.

Margaret Gray, author of the 2014 book Labor and the Locavore: The Making of a Comprehensive Food Ethic and a political science professor at Adelphi University, argues that the corporate buyers at the heart of the program are also key to the model’s chances at being applied to workers in other industries.

“The [Florida campaign] was able to go after these corporate giants and try and get them on board after they spent years and years trying to do something directly with the farmers,” Gray said. “This seems to be the sort of model that’s going forward.”

That’s already happening. Beginning this growing season, bell pepper and strawberry growers in Florida are adapting the CIW’s model, as are dairy workers in Vermont.

In 2014, the Burlington-based nonprofit Migrant Justice launched its Milk With Dignity campaign and named Ben & Jerry’s as its first corporate target.

It didn’t take long for the company to join the campaign: it signed an intention to implement the program throughout its northeast supply chain last year. And while negotiations are ongoing, organizers are optimistic those talks will come to a successful close soon.

According to Abel Luna, an education coordinator with Migrant Justice, the issues facing dairy workers in Vermont are similar to those of the Florida tomato pickers -- long days, low wages and little time off.

“You have no idea and have no control over your life,” Luna told HuffPost. “You’re dependent on other people to tell you everything."

Luna says the campaign is changing all of that.

“From the first day, you feel the difference,” Luna added. “You will be educated about what your rights and benefits as workers will be and you’ll be educated on how to access this third-party mechanism to enforce your rights if there is a violation. You feel valued as a worker.”

Making improved wages and conditions the new normal for U.S. farmworkers could prove a challenge, and consumers will need to be on board.

Increased prices won't be as much of a factor as you might think. All this comes at no or little cost to the consumer, regardless of whether participating retailers eat the additional cost of higher pay or not. As research from the University of California-Davis labor economist Philip Martin has shown, because the average household spends so little on produce, even a 40-percent increase in average farmworker pay would mean about $15 a year in increased spending.

Whole Foods has not increased the retail price for tomatoes as a result of its participation in the Fair Food Program, according to National Geographic.

While many consumers are increasingly aware of their food's impact on the environment and animal welfare, Gray suspects that some may be experiencing fatigue when it comes to considering worker concerns as well. That’s especially the case when their romanticized vision of modern-day farm life doesn’t include largely underpaid migrant workers facing harsh conditions.

“But when someone imagines what the local farmer and local farm look like, they’re just thinking about white people," Gray said. "I think these workers, in their imaginations, don’t really fit into the equation. It’s a real dissonance that’s difficult for people.”

Breaking through those preconceived notions could be difficult, especially as industry groups have fought campaigns like the CIW’s.

Still, the work continues. Once the Vermont workers’ deal with Ben & Jerry’s is complete, the Milk With Dignity campaign’s targets will turn to other corporate dairy buyers.

Back in Florida, the CIW’s campaign with tomato pickers is also ongoing.

In addition to monitoring for compliance among existing participants, their campaign is targeting major buyers like Wendy’s, Publix and Kroger that have thus far declined to take part in the Fair Food Program. In March, the organization launched a national boycott of Wendy’s

It is not lost on Reyes and his colleagues that their work extends far beyond any particular corporation or industry, however.

“We’re not just challenging [Wendy’s, Kroger and Publix], we’re creating a blueprint that can be used for workers in other realities, too,” Reyes added.

This story is part of The Huffington Post’s ongoing Farming in America series. The series highlights the hopes and fears and the challenges and successes of U.S. farmers pushing beyond conventional boundaries. Contact us below if you wish to get involved.

Joseph Erbentraut covers promising innovations and challenges in the areas of food and water. In addition, Erbentraut explores the evolving ways Americans are identifying and defining themselves. Follow Erbentraut on Twitter at @robojojo. Tips? Email joseph.erbentraut@huffingtonpost.com.

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