There is, today, a human rights crisis in Florida's fields. Farmworkers picking tomatoes on Florida's industrial farms toil from dawn to dusk for sub-poverty wages at a piece rate that hasn't changed significantly in thirty years. They do this grueling, dangerous work with no right to overtime pay, no health insurance, no sick leave, no paid vacation or pension, and no right to organize in order to improve these conditions. The rash of modern-day slavery cases that have emerged from Florida's fields over the past decade only underscores the severity of this crisis.
Furthermore, large tomato purchasers in the food industry have used their volume purchasing to demand cheaper tomatoes, holding down tomato prices and profiting from the poverty and exploitation of farmworkers. Behind the tomatoes that top fast-food sandwiches and salads and line supermarket shelves is a hidden world in which farmworkers face sub-poverty wages and abuse.
But a new day is dawning in the Florida agricultural industry. After a four-year national consumer boycott of Taco Bell, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) and parent company Yum Brands forged an agreement in 2005 that established several critical precedents for corporate supply chain accountability in the food industry, including economic responsibility for farmworker poverty, supply chain transparency, and the participation of farmworkers in the protection of their own rights.
Since the landmark agreement with Yum Brands, the CIW has signed similar accords with McDonald's, Burger King, Subway, Whole Foods Market, Compass Group, Aramark, Sodexo and Bon Appetit Management Company.
These agreements draw a direct link for the first time between the retail food giants, on the one hand, and the farmworkers whose exploited labor puts food on this country's tables, on the other. They have laid the foundation for fundamental change in the agricultural and retail food industries.
As a result of these victories, in November 2010, the CIW and the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange signed an agreement to extend the CIW's Fair Food principles – including a strict code of conduct, a cooperative complaint resolution system, a participatory health and safety program, and a worker-to-worker education process – to over 90% of Florida's tomato fields. This watershed moment ended a 15-year impasse and followed the establishment, just weeks earlier, of two direct agreements between the CIW and two of the largest growers in the industry, Pacific and Six L's.
Yet, there are those within the retail food industry who continue to resist the expansion and consolidation of these changes throughout Florida's tomato fields. Some have publicly rejected working with the CIW, instead offering weak excuses which do nothing to improve the wages or working conditions of farmworkers; others have refused to even respond to calls to ensure human rights for farmworkers.
Such resistance jeopoardizes the gains of the Campaign for Fair Food and allows the decades of abuse and degradation lived by farmworkers to persist. For far too long, most people in our society have either not known the truth about exploitation in the fields or have chosen to tolerate these abuses as an acceptable cost of doing business. But there is another way: the creation of a food supply chain that is truly fair and sustainable and ensures farmworkers' fundamental human rights.
Therefore, as consumers from national and international religious, human rights, student, labor, sustainable food and agriculture, environmental, and grassroots organizations we join together in this Alliance for Fair Food to counter this resistance and to advance real rights for farmworkers, in partnership with the CIW, throughout the Florida tomato industry. Through the sustained, creative, non-violent action of consumers, we will demand socially responsible purchasing throughout the retail food industry. And through a genuine partnership among consumers, workers, growers and retailers, we will eliminate the market conditions that have deprived and dehumanized farmworkers for far too long.