Florida tomatoes at Publix supermarket, picked by workers who earn $25 to pick a ton by hand - Photos by C. Parrish
Florida tomatoes at Publix supermarket, picked by workers who earn $25 to pick a ton by hand - Photos by C. Parrish
Imagine working in humid 90-degree heat in drained swampland for 12 hours picking as fast as you can for about 50 bucks in wages, then going home at the end of the day to a beat-down trailer that typically costs $1,200 a month to rent, but has no air conditioning and perhaps no running water.

These are the tomato pickers of Immokalee, Florida, who harvest most of the tomatoes for sale in supermarkets from Florida to Maine. Immokalee, an expanse of hot, drained swampland in an unincorporated area just north of the Everglades, is Florida's most important agricultural area; it grows more tomatoes than any other place in the country and it grows them for big corporations: fast food chains, food servicers for airlines, supermarkets, Walmart. If it's an American tomato and it wasn't grown in the backyard or by a local commercial greenhouse or hydroponic grower, it probably was grown in Immokalee. And it was probably picked by a migrant farmworker from Haiti, El Salvador, Guatemala or Mexico. Some are illegals; many have agricultural work visas.

"Immokalee is a big village. It's primarily farmworkers," said Lucas Benitiz, who went to work in the Immokalee farm fields 20 years ago, when he was 17 years old.

Benitiz, speaking mostly through an interpreter at a protest march on March 16 in front of the Lakeland, Florida, headquarters of Publix, the largest supermarket chain in Florida, said Immokalee is not like any other place he has seen in Florida.

"It is a third-world country," he said. "There is a lot of poverty. The environment is very bad."

Benitiz, a co-founder of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), is working to get tomato pickers a one-cent raise.

Florida tomato pickers are paid about 50 cents for each 32-pound bucket of tomatoes they pick - the same price they were paid 25 years ago. In 1980, a tomato picker had to pick 1.25 tons of tomatoes a day to earn minimum wage; today, they must pick twice that amount a day to earn minimum wage.

In an effort to get a fairer wage for farm laborers, CIW launched a Fair Food Program, a campaign to get large corporate wholesale buyers like McDonald's and Walmart who buy huge quantities of produce to sign a pledge to pay one penny more per pound of tomatoes. That penny goes directly to farmworkers.

Corporate involvement is essential, according to CIW, because large buyers have tremendous pressure to drive prices down because of the volume they buy. The lower price follows the supply chain down to influence working conditions and wages for farm hands at the bottom. Supermarkets benefit, consumers do, too, but on the backs of farm laborers.

"The penny functions as a bonus," said Benitiz. The difference in a paycheck could range from $20 to $100, he said.

"We are not a union," he said. CIW does not organize labor or threaten strikes.

Benitiz evolved from Immokalee tomato picker to anti-slavery activist and farmworker advocate years ago after borrowing a car with tinted windows and helping four farmworkers escape from the fields after learning they were enslaved by their employer, were unable to leave because they had never been paid and were guarded at night so they wouldn't flee.

His experience in the farm fields led him to speak out for just treatment of farmworkers.

"We are grass-roots. The main problem is wages, yes, sexual harassment for the women. No respect is the problem of our community."

In March, farmworkers and CIW supporters tackled Publix, who publicly embraces fair treatment of its own employees.

Marching 200 miles from Fort Meyers to the Publix corporate office in Lakeland, just south of Orlando, andsleeping in churches and protesting at Publix supermarkets along the route, Immokalee farmworkers and their supporters came from as far away as Texas and Maine. So far, Publix has refused to pay the penny, saying the farmworkers are not Publix employees and working conditions and pay are not their responsibility.

"It doesn't matter how strong Publix thinks they are," Geraldo Reyes of CIW told the cheering marchers, some of whom had been walking for two weeks. The large corporate office gleamed in the background, set back from the highway across acres of green lawn bordered by shrubs and flower beds. CIW volunteers were placed along the edge of the property to keep marchers off the green grass. They didn't want to be charged with trespassing or defacement of property.
"The people are much stronger," said Reyes to the enthusiastic crowd. Women trilled and Mexican folk music played in the background. A folk play demonstrating the efforts to get a fair wage followed, showing laborers trying to push a truck full of tomatos, but unable to budge it until Publix stepped up to lend a hand.

"We know Publix will come to the table," said Reyes. "We know we are going to win because we are not going to stop until Publix pays a penny more a pound."

If so, Publix will be the first large supermarket chain to do so, following in the footsteps of 11 corporations, including McDonald's, Subway, Taco Bell, Walmart, Chipotle, Whole Foods, and Trader Joe's. Some agreed to the penny bonus without much fuss. For Taco Bell, it took four years of protests, boycotts and negotiations before they signed the penny pledge. Wendy's still hasn't done so.

After Publix, the CIW plans to target other supermarket chains.

Benitiz said treating all farmworkers fairly will help root out the worst of the unethical labor recruiters by creating a new norm for worker dignity.

It is widely accepted that slavery and debt bondage of farmworkers is common in Immokalee; nine cases involving over 1,000 farmworkers have been brought by the U.S. Department of Justice against labor recruiters involved in the farmworker slave trade since 2000. Those are just the ones who got caught, according to CIW, who say many workers don't speak English and are unwilling to come forward, even if they find a way to do so.

Some workers have been brought into Florida, sold at auction to the highest bidder, and indentured.

Even farmworkers who are routinely paid and free to leave their jobs work at the lowest paid jobs in the country under the harshest conditions, including exposure to pesticides at high doses. There is no overtime for farmworkers, no benefits, and they have no right to organize. Child labor is accepted.

As a result, treatment of farmworkers is largely at the hands of their employers. Sexual harassment and abuse of women is common; but many women will not speak up, according to CIW, for fear of losing their jobs, being blacklisted by labor recruiters if they do, or being deported.

Fair treatment is not just an issue in Florida. After the tomato season is over in May, some workers will end up in Maine to harvest blueberries and broccoli.

A hike into a blueberry field in Lincolnville during harvest season a decade ago indicated that what happens in Florida can happen here: a Latino crew was raking the blueberry fields under the surveillance of guards with German Shepherds on short leashes.

Bob St. Peter, a Sedgwick, Maine, farmer and the director of Food for Maine's Future, was in Lakeland, Florida, for the CIW protest.

"Farmworkers and small farmers have a lot more in common than not," said St. Peter, who was instrumental in bringing CIW to Maine over the past two years to help make a connection between small farmers and migrant farm workers in the Down East region.

"A lot of them are isolated, without cars," said St. Peter. Local farmers have donated vegetables to the farm workers and helped workers gain access to migrant services.

"What they do and what we do isn't so different," he said. "We're both putting food on America's tables."