This post was contributed by Lorien MacAuley.
I recently drove down to Immokalee, Florida, for the annual “Encuentro” of the Student Farmworker Alliance. I wanted to see for myself the town of Immokalee and the headquarters of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, the group that had inspired the documentary Food Chains (which I highly recommend, available on Netflix). The Student Farmworker Alliance is a national network of students at different colleges and universities that work with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers towards better conditions for farmworkers.
Immokalee is a smallish town, maybe similar in size to Blacksburg, Virginia, and is dominated by sand and palm trees, low houses and trailers in square lots arranged in a grid pattern, separated by wide, straight avenues, peppered with signs in Spanish. There are chickens, dogs, and cats roaming the streets, along with all sorts of carts pushed by ambitious-looking merchants selling a variety of sweets, foods and other wares. Immokalee is also home to many of Florida’s farmworkers, who are bussed to farms all over central Florida to earn piece rates that often equal less than minimum wage.
Throughout the weekend, the Coalition for Immokalee Workers gave several presentations to discuss the overall movement for farmworker justice. According to their talks, and other talks at the Encuentro, five myths were debunked about “Immokalee-style” contracted farm workers:
MYTH #1: Farmworkers like to travel, so embrace the carefree lifestyle of migrant labor.
REALITY: Farmworkers often had no choice to leave their home towns, since they face hunger and poverty in Mexico and other countries, a situation that often traces back to the unintended consequences of U.S. trade policies like NAFTA.
MYTH #2: Farm contracted laborers are free to go whenever they like.
REALITY: Farmworkers are often beholden to the boss, the farm labor contractor, who may owe them back pay, or create other arrangements where workers wind up actually owing them money (this reminded me of a coal company store and scrip).
MYTH #3: Farmworkers are paid a little better, because they do such a hard job.
REALITY: Farmworkers often get paid piece rates that equate to less than minimum wage, although the job is harder than most minimum wage jobs, since farm labor is exempt from minimum wage requirements (except in CA, OR, WA).
MYTH #4: Modern laws protect farmworkers from hazardous conditions and chemicals on the job.
REALITY: Many farmworkers are still at risk of sun stroke, dehydration, and hazardous chemical exposure.
MYTH #5: Slavery could never happen in the U.S. in the modern day.
REALITY: We were shown one of several locations where undocumented farmworkers were discovered after they were kept as slaves (chained up at night), and finally escaped in 2011. Because contract labor is a self-contained operation where the farmers deal with crew leaders and rarely deal with the workers directly, this occupation is at high risk for human trafficking, actual slavery.
The dynamics at work in the “Immokalee-style” contract labor system amount to pretty dismal circumstances for farmworkers. We depend on these individuals in order for our agricultural system to keep stocking our grocery shelves with food, so it is difficult for me to understand why the situation seems so tenuous and unsustainable for each individual worker. I had also previously thought that “Immokalee-style” contract labor was only in the south, but the same Immokalee workers follow the harvest with their crew bosses, from Florida all the way up to Virginia.
During the Encuentro, I asked several of the workers what was the fundamental flaw in our food system, why farmers cannot afford to pay their workers a living wage. In an especially insightful response, one worker, Leo, remarked that since slavery, through the actions of Cesar Chavez in California in the 1960s, the agricultural system has been broken; somewhere along the way, the middlemen started getting all the profits, leaving the farmers and workers to struggle to make ends meet. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers, along with their ally, the Student Farmworker Alliance, are challenging that system to bring justice to farmworkers and create a system that works for everyone.
This week is a National Week of Action for Student Farmworker Alliance. Click here for more info: http://www.sfalliance.org/
Lorien MacAuley is a PhD student in the Department of Agricultural, Leadership & Community Education at Virginia Tech. She works as a graduate research assistant for the Virginia Beginning Farmer & Rancher Coalition.