Thursday, May 9, 2013

Holmer: Coalition of Immokalee Workers

Theres a blissful ignorance that permeates through American culture. While 80% of the world lives on less than $10 dollars a day most of us have no qualm dolling out the equivalent for a large value meal at our favorite fast food chain1. Perhaps we could chalk it up to our elevated standard of living or the successes of free market capitalism, but something tells me the artificiality of “Value” is propped upon the exploitation of someone else. Much like our propensity to easily dismiss who hand stitched our shirts, mined our precious gems and minerals, or the true costs to our contrived petroleum prices and the subsidies and wars which serve to only manipulate them. Now its not my intention to oppress any reader with insurmountable guilt, it wouldn’t seem particularly normal to question every single element you put in or on your body, convenience isn't simply a luxury anymore, its an integral part of American life. The status quo today demands a system that propagates uniformity, value-centricity, and outlandishly accessible goods and services. While most would assume that the human rights atrocities of the world are relegated to far flung third world nations or distant historical memories, they persist still here and now. The plight of the migrant worker in the U.S. today will make even the most apathetic amongst us to reevaluate the true “Value” of the food we eat.

What else oozes the virtues of cheap, readily available and machine-like consistency than the fast food industry. While one could delve through the still deplorable conditions of the factory farms and inhumane treatment afforded to livestock, or pest and herbicides, the relationship between agriculture and an exploited labor force is as old as the country itself. However this scenario isn’t uniquely an American one. The notion of an indentured agricultural labor class has endured throughout the feudal systems of Europe and further globalized through the imperialism of the 19th century. While indentured servitude dominated the initial phase of the exploited labor force here in the United States, any grade schooler will attest to the prominence of African American slavery. The extent however may come as some surprise, by 1860 the state of Florida’s population was 140,424, 44% of which were enslaved2. But the exploitative labor practices simply didn’t disappear after the ratification of the thirteenth amendment. African Americans bore the brunt again when convict lease programs were instituted following the civil war. Inmates , predominantly black, would be loaned out to local agri and mining business. Florida seems to have a long sordid history with these types of practices, along with Alabama being the last two to outlaw such systems by 1923. When laborers tried to dispute labor conditions they met the expected response, threats of or outright violence. Between the years of 1882 and 1930 black Floridians suffered the highest per capita lynching rate in the US with at least 266 killings, many linked to labor disputes3. While other industrial sectors were feeling the pressure of the unionized labor movement of the early 20th century, agricultural workers seemed to be left by the wayside. Under New Deal legislation specifically the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 which saw an unprecedented expanse to labor rights, it excluded agricultural workforces. Protections such as minimum wages and child labor protections were not instituted until 1966, and still till this day aren’t provided overtime wages. While its no mystery of the long injustices afforded laborers here in the United States, agricultural has been afforded different treatment.
Could it be possible that the vestiges of these seemingly abandoned practices still reside in the seedy underbelly of the American agricultural industry today? In the case of the pickers in Florida’s lucrative tomato business we can see complex issues of immigration, labor rights, and food standards are mired in a murky world of corporate interests and a lack of social consciousness. If i were to introduce the notion of human trafficking, many might associate it with prostitution, strippers and the sex trade, quite removed from suburban bliss and American ideals. It would be disconcerting then to accept that the perfectly red hued tomato adorning your hamburger may have been harvested by the hands of trafficked humans. It’s estimated that nearly 15,000 new human trafficking incidents occur within the United States Each year4. It’s subversive nature doesn't allow for precise accountability of these human rights violations, but the simple fact remains, modern slavery is being perpetrated throughout the agricultural fields of modern times. It’s pertinent to note the difference between slavery-like conditions and the actual presence of people in bondage. There are certainly those callous and cynical enough whom don’t empathize with migrant labor movements. Some would claim these workers have a choice where to work and if the wages and conditions aren’t suitable then can work somewhere else. It’s the subtle beauty of the capitalist machine, a fierce environment of competition between businesses dictating prices and between labor dictating wages. While its not my place to assert what any group of people deserve in compensation as long as those meet minimum federal standards, it is however the explicit goal of this paper to out the mostly unknown world of a people in bondage.
It’s no exaggeration of the truth to claim the plight of migrant workers in Florida’s fields have endured a system of which we thought we shed 150 years ago. It may seem like a matter of sensationalized rhetoric to describe what is occurring as slavery, so we should let the statistics speak for themselves. In the past fifteen years or so Florida law enforcement has freed over one thousand workers who were said to be kept against their will. This was accomplished through the successful prosecution of seven different cases by the US Department of Justice Civil Rights Division since 1997 in the state of Florida alone5
Immigration has always proposed itself as somewhat of a confusing dilemma to me. If illegals were as detrimental to our country as some may lead us to believe then why haven’t considerably more stringent methods been enforced to clamp down on it. But conversely if immigration reform could be as beneficial through new increased tax revenues then why hasn’t it seen serious developments. The migrant workers are the unseen pariahs of society, forgotten or ignored but completely essential to sustaining current agricultural practices. Extremely low labor wages are the cornerstone of cheap fast food, I’m sure the franchise restaurant workers could attest to this. Now imagine if American citizens have an incessant struggle for improved wages and workplace conditions with strikes and walkouts being more salient in mass media, how exactly would an illegal migrant worker fair in the same struggle.
Many who cross the southern border in hopes of opportunity are assisted by paid guides otherwise known as Coyotes. But the relationship doesn’t necessarily end once they cross into the United States. In the case of migrant agricultural workers, many times these Coyotes are associated with the companies that deal with the farms. Already burdened by exorbitant fees simply for passage into the US, it is then divulged that they haven't paid off the entirety of the debts owed. This system indoctrinates the newly migrated into company towns. Much like the ones built around the turn of the century near newly industrialized cities, these slums are owned or sub contractually affiliated with the farms. The general stores, housing, loan services, and nearly all types of essentials are monopolized, forced upon the migrants and only serve to deepen the debt of which they are bound to. Some might perceive this as ludacris and wonder why they don’t simply move, use another store, or get another job.
Many of these people are undocumented, have little to no education and dont speak english, in fact its a pre requisite that many of these Coyotes are told to seek out for employment, The migrants are simply not aware of rights they are protected by, too scared of the possibility of deportation, unfamiliarity with American culture, and submitted through intimidation and outright violence. Some startling examples of such are US V. Cuello wherein 30 tomato pickers were held in isolated trailers in Immokalee Florida swamplands, held and constantly watched. Or the more high profile case of US V Navarrete wherein the Coyote indebted migrant workers, beat and chained them in box trucks for punishment. US Attorney Doug Molloy had called the case “slavery,plain and simple” in January of 20086.
Immokalee Florida is a beacon for all that is wrong with the agricultural industry and the labor conditions it employs upon its workers. A town in the heart of the Florida tomato industry, the ramifications of poor pay and low standard of living is evident through the community as a whole. It’s per capita income is $9,700 a year, a quarter of the national average. The small city of fifteen thousand has half of it living below the federal poverty line. Two thirds of the children there who enter kindergarten drop out before they finish high school and they are at risk of violent crimes six times the national average. The workers here have endured the same rate of wages for the past 30 years, with adjustment for inflation that’s equal to a drop by 50%.7
The condition of the migrant worker is dire to say the very least. Lured by promises of freedom and opportunity some have been captured and forced to endure conditions which literally take a toll on their lives. While there have been vast improvements over the past 20 years, with organizations such as the CIW(Coalition of Immokalee Workers) and their high profile and successful boycott of fast food chain Taco Bell there is still much headway to be made. The essential conflict exists in the lack of awareness we all as Americans share.

1 Shah, Anup. Global Issues, "Poverty Facts and Stats." Last modified 01 07, 2013. Accessed April 26, 2013.

2 Coalition of Immokalee Workers, "Florida Modern Day Slavery Museum." Accessed April 26, 2013.

3 Ibid

4 Barry Estabrook, Tomatoland, (Kansas City: Andrews McMeel Publishing, LLC, 2011), chap. 3.

5 Coalition of Immokalee Workers, "Florida Modern Day Slavery Museum." Accessed April 26, 2013.

6 Coalition of Immokalee Workers, "Florida Modern Day Slavery Museum." Accessed April 26, 2013.

7 Barry Estabrook, Tomatoland, (Kansas City: Andrews McMeel Publishing, LLC, 2011), chap. 3.

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