Freddie Saladin – Features Editor
For some students, it is hard to believe that slavery still exists in this country. Members of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) spoke to Clarion University students Oct. 8 in Stevens Hall to report how badly some farm workers are being treated. A CIW representative used the word “slavery” when speaking of the situation.
Founded in 1993, CIW is an organization that helps to end slavery and sexual assault against workers in tomato fields. Tomato fields are one of the biggest agriculture industries in Florida. Right now, the CIW is boycotting Wendy’s for not signing onto the Fair Food Program, which helps to provide better working environments for the farm workers.
Nely Rodriguez, a speaker for CIW, was accompanied by Natalia Naranjo, who translated the words of Rodriguez. Together, they spoke about CIW and what they stand for. According to Rodriguez, most of the workers were “seen as tools” by the owners of the fields. Female workers were being sexually assaulted and were even held at gunpoint by the owners. Many workers were never able to take breaks, drink water or even speak to other workers. After working 12 to 16-hour shifts, paychecks were not always guaranteed for the workers.
“There’s people behind the food that we’re eating,” said Rodriguez. Those who owned the fields were getting richer from mistreating and not paying the workers of the fields. Individual workers who spoke out were punished by the owners. After having enough mistreatment, a group of six workers got together and worked to fight against the owners of the fields. By 1995, the group of workers started to grow and they continued to strike and fight against the owners.
After more workers started to protest, violence towards them began to decrease and they started to make some progress. Because of these protests, many other people started to realize how badly they were being treated and they started to support the CIW.
The workers created their own code of conduct to end sexual assault and slavery in the fields. Eventually, the workers decided to boycott Taco Bell, one of the main buyers of tomatoes at the time, because they would not agree to their terms. After a four-year battle, in 2005, Taco Bell finally signed on and only bought tomatoes from farms where workers were treated with dignity. Working conditions were improved as well as the pay.
After the victory against Taco Bell, the CIW gained a lot of momentum. Years later, McDonalds and Burger King also began to work with the CIW. The organization continued to grow, helping the lives of many workers and providing safer working conditions for them.
The CIW created the Fair Food Program, a partnership between the workers, farmers and companies to provide safer conditions for the workers and to make sure that they are treated better.
After the workers felt more comfortable in their work environments, they spoke out about their experiences and their stories of working in farms with terrible conditions, which resulted in several farm owners being sent to prison.
Because it seemed normal to some of the workers to be working in bad conditions, the CIW works together to educate current farm workers about the rights that they have and how they should be treated. Any farm workers who had complaints about being mistreated were told to notify the CIW.
To this day, there are 14 corporations signed onto the program. With corporations like Walmart and Chartwells, who provide food for Clarion University, the Fair Food Program became successful. Fields over several states are improving and 50 percent of the workers are being spoken to about how they are doing and if anything can be improved with how they are being treated. However, the CIW is fighting against Wendy’s after they refused to join the program.
According to Rodriguez, Wendy’s has been given two options: buy tomatoes from fields where workers are treated fairly, or buy from fields where they are not treated fairly.
Wendy’s is currently buying their tomatoes from farms in Mexico, where farm workers are still being mistreated and are dealing with slavery, sexual violence and child labor.
Rodriguez announced that there will be a national week of action starting on Oct. 21. The CIW encourages students and anybody who is interested to take part and boycott Wendy’s.