How Florida farmworkers won a fairer deal from America's biggest food companies

'Food Chains,' a film documentary, chronicles how Florida's tomato pickers were able to work with food companies to raise pay and improve working conditions.

Donald Traill/Invision/AP
Actress and executive producer Eva Longoria attended the premiere of her documentary film "Food Chains" in November 2014 in New York. 'This is not a film about oppression,” she says. 'It’s actually about transformation.'

The small city of Immokalee, Florida, provides produce to millions of people. It’s one of the country’s agricultural hubs, but with an average per capita income of $9,518, the majority of residents—many of whom are farmworkers—live well below the national poverty level.

“The wealth doesn’t stay here with us.” That’s  Lucas Benitez, founder of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and a former farmworker, in the new film Food Chains. The documentary, by director Sanjay Rawal and executive producers Eva Longoria and Eric Schlosser, follows the Coalition’s fight for human rights and fair wages for tomato pickers.

“There is more interest in food these days than ever,” the filmmakers write on the film’s website. “Yet there is very little interest in the hands that pick it.”

Rawal, who spent 15 years working in the nonprofit industry and several years abroad, was aware of the routine human rights abuses against agricultural workers overseas.

“I had no idea that these same abuses could be happening here,” he told me. “I knew I couldn’t just focus on the problem, I had to focus on the solution.”

For Rawal, the most promising path out of this kind of exploitation comes from the Coalition’s strategy of organizing workers at the bottom to revolutionize entire supply chains.

In the 1990s, Benitez and a small group of other tomato pickers founded the Coalition to create a safer working environment in Florida’s fields and raise farmworkers' pay. In addition to winning wage increases, the group has been instrumental in fighting sexual exploitation, violence, human trafficking, and debt bondage on farms.

Many tomato pickers live in trailers with up to 16 other people during the growing season, since rent is otherwise unaffordable. Until recently, when Coalition organizers succeeded in increasing their pay, workers received 50 cents for each 32-pound bucket of tomatoes they picked—a pay-per-piece practice that’s a holdover from slavery, according to the film.

Pickers’ wages usually amount to less than $50 a day, and they work long hours under the constant threat of sexual assault and abuse. Because many are undocumented, crimes against them often go unreported.

In 2011, the Coalition launched the Fair Food Program, an project aimed at getting corporations to pay farmers an additional cent for every pound of tomatoes purchased. The program also demands that allegations of abuse and sexual assault on the farms are taken seriously.

Many large companies have already signed on—some of them after tenacious, drawn-out campaigning by Coalition members. Whole Foods, Subway, Walmart, and Chipotle are among several corporations that now comply with Fair Food Program standards.

Now, upwards of 80,000 Florida farmworkers—about 90 percent of the state’s total—are receiving the benefits of these protections. But Food Chains largely focuses on Publix, a major regional grocery chain in Florida, which has refused to meet with Coalition members or join the Fair Food Program, despite public pressure.

Part of what makes the Fair Food Program so successful is that the additional cost for tomatoes is offset to consumers: Since it’s distributed among millions of buyers, each family pays just pennies more per year. Plus, the program holds producers accountable: If they’re found guilty of inappropriately handling a case of sexual assault or abuse, for example, partner companies can’t buy their produce.

In other words, if workers report an issue and a supplier in Florida doesn’t address it, that supplier won’t be able to sell to Subway or Whole Foods. Janice R. Fine, a labor relations professor at Rutgers, called it “the best workplace-monitoring program I’ve seen in the U.S.” earlier this year in The New York Times.

Julia de la Cruz, a Coalition member, says farmers are already seeing the benefits of the program. Workers now have a right to take breaks, to leave the farm when they feel threatened, and to report cases of sexual assault or abuse without fear of retaliation.

According to de la Cruz, farms are enforcing a zero tolerance policy against sexual assault. There have been cases where women have reported abuse, and those supervisors were investigated and fired. And that additional penny per pound of tomatoes? It’s a “significant economic relief for our workers, and our community,” she told me.

Rawal sees this fight in the American tomato industry as part of a bigger global issue.

“More than 95 percent of the products that we purchase come through a supply chain system,” he said. And other, non-agricultural workers who produce for major retailers—like the Gap and Walmart—face very similar issues at the bottom of their respective supply chains.

Rawal and and his colleagues believe the Coalition’s model of grassroots organizing can be a solution for workers all over the world.

“This is not a film about oppression,” executive producer Eva Longoria told MSNBC’s Chris Hayes. “It’s actually about transformation.”

Food Chains opened Nov. 21. Click here to find out about screenings near you.

• Nur Lalji wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media project that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. The original article is here. Nur is a contributor to YES! based in the Seattle area. Follow her on Twitter at @nuralizal.

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