The Exploitation of Low Income Workers


Three strikes in four years finally got the point across: the Immokalee farm workers were no longer going to stand for conditions of slavery and low wages. In 1995, 3,000 workers started their protest by collaborating together in a general labor strike. The following year, a worker was beaten for leaving the fields to get a drink of water, and the second strike began with the slogan, “To beat one is to beat all of us.”  Finally, in 1999 a third strike commenced. Though the conditions of the workers were slowly improving by that time, they were still far from where they needed to be. 

Every growing season – the months of May through October – 16,000 to 17,000 immigrants of mainly Latino, Haitian, and Mayan Indian decent come to Florida to pick tomatoes, according to the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. And according to the Coalition of Immokalee Workers official website, about 90% of the United States’ supply of fresh tomatoes grow in the fields of central and southern Florida. The high demand calls for a high volume of workers.  Unfortunately, these workers are exploited physically, emotionally, and financially as they struggle to support themselves and their loved ones who are both domestic and abroad.  Many workers send wages to their families’ in foreign countries, yet barely have enough to sustain themselves.  According to the Coalition of Immokalee Workers official Website, the farm laborers’ wages remained constant between the years of 1978 and 2000, despite the increases in the cost of living. Furthermore, according to Food First Institute for Food & Development Policy, in order to make minimum wage the workers had to pick 2.5 tons of tomatoes each day: an impossible feat considering the amount of daylight hours available for work. Farm laborers, on the Coalition’s website, reported often working about 80 hours per week without being compensated for overtime.  According to the Coalition’s website, workers did not receive medical benefits or sufficient break time, and as a result many of them fell ill and became unable to work.

These conditions were only part of the injustices that the Immokalee workers faced every day. Along with financial struggles, the workers reported lived in terrible conditions: often, 8 to 15 workers would cram into a trailer intended for 4. According to a former farm worker, if bosses believed that the laborers’ work was not sufficient, the workers were then beaten and threatened with other forms of violence. The workers inhaled harmful chemicals from picking tomatoes, and the repetitive, laborious work was similar to that of work in a sweatshop, according to Food First.

The long hours combined with health hazards and terrible housing conditions cultivated the grounds for change. The Coalition of Immokalee workers (CIW) was first organized in 1993 with a small group of workers, and today it consists of roughly 4,000 members.  The Campaign for Fair Food was one of their first movements. Beginning in 2001, this movement sought to improve the wages and working conditions of Florida tomato pickers by having certain corporations, such as Walmart, pay a penny more for each pound of tomatoes purchased. This small increase eventually translated into a 32-cent raise increase for workers.  Since large corporations such as Taco Bell purchase much of the tomatoes grown in Florida and picked by the Immokalee workers, the CIW also launched a boycott against called “Boot the Bell” in which 22 Taco Bells were forced to improve wages and working conditions for Florida tomato pickers in its supply change.  This campaign was met with success in March of 2005 with the help of the CIW and dedicated high school and college students.

The efforts of these movements raise awareness about the exploitation of the Immokalee workers. So far, the CIW has seen much success with gaining rights for workers; however, there is still a long and arduous path ahead to achieving full justice.

 To read more about history and movements of the CIW, please view:

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