By Fr. Fred Kammer, S.J.
In the hot Florida sun and in the aisles of our nation’s supermarkets and fast food outlets, a small David contends with multiple Goliaths about what is fair and what is not, about human dignity and slave labor, and about what is the “common good” for those who harvest this nation’s crops. “David” is the Coalition of Immokalee Workers [CIW] (supported by their colleague organization Interfaith Action of Southwest Florida and The Student/Farmworker Alliance), an association of about 4,000 largely Mexican, Guatemalan, and Haitian farmworkers founded in 1993. Its headquarters are in the small town of Immokalee in the remote heartland of South Florida. This David’s goal is to have major purchasers of Florida’s tomatoes— over half of our nation’s fresh tomato crop—agree to pay one cent more per pound and sign a Code of Conduct guaranteeing certain rights and working conditions to tomato farmworkers.
Tomato pickers are paid on a “piece rate” basis, earning an average of 45 cents per 32-pound bucket of tomatoes—a rate that has remained stagnant since 1978. At this rate, workers have to pick 2.5 tons of tomatoes per day just to earn minimum wage. Workers often begin their days with a 6:30 a.m. pickup to ride to the fields, returning to Immokalee as late as 8 p.m. Excluded from the rights to overtime pay, union organizing, or collective bargaining by the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA)1, farmworkers labor in the midst of dangerous machinery, toxic pesticides, heavy lifting, bending and stooping, using knives or machetes, and often without drinking water or toilets—hazardous and unhealthy conditions that most U.S. workers would not tolerate. This is why the majority of this nation’s crop farmworkers, including those in Immokalee, are “unauthorized” 2 under our immigration laws.