“The right to a just wage, the right to work free of forced labor, the right to organize – three of the rights in the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights – are routinely violated when it comes to farm workers in the United States.”
Lucas Benitez was born in Guerrero, Mexico and moved to Immokalee, Florida at the age of 16 to work in the tomato fields. As an agricultural worker, he was angered by the mistreatment, poor pay and grueling working conditions. In response, Benitez got together with other workers to discuss conditions and eventually helped found the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW). He has become a leader in the struggle to end exploitation of American farmworkers. Instead of calling himself an organizer, Benitez refers to himself as an animator. Animators are “people who activate the community to fight together and share the struggle.”
Since it was founded, CIW has used a range of strategies to raise awareness about farmworkers’ conditions and advocate for their basic human rights. To build solidarity, the group created their own low power radio station, Radio Conciencia, and a co-op to help workers purchase food and other necessities at fair prices. In 2001, CIW launched its Campaign for Fair Food, which brought the fight for fair wages and better working conditions directly to the big corporations that depend on the food farmworkers help produce. CIW achieved its first major victory in 2005 when Taco Bell agreed to improve wages and working conditions in response to a national consumer boycott. Following Taco Bell’s example, many other giant retail food chains and supermarkets, including Burger King, Chipotle Mexican Grill, McDonald’s, Subway, Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods, have signed binding agreements that require growers to pass along an extra penny to workers per pound of product sold, raising the average annual wage from $10,000 to $17,000.
Today, Benitez’s goal is to make “the Florida tomato industry a model of social accountability.” Through its Fair Food campaign, CIW has convinced major food corporations to agree to purchase tomatoes only from the 26 participating growers, who together account for 90% of tomato industry revenues and have each signed a code of conduct agreeing to regular audits of workplace practices, including fair pay, sexual harassment protections and other labor issues. CIW educates workers on the farms on company time to ensure that workers understand their rights under the Fair Food Code of Conduct.
WHY DO FARMWORKERS NEED PROTECTION?
Farmworkers are critical to the U.S. food system, but they often lack basic rights and suffer exploitation. Historically, U.S. agricultural workers have been imported from other countries with vulnerable populations and have been disenfranchised. Many farmworkers today are forced to leave their countries as a result of U.S. policies. For example, as a result of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the cost of producing corn in the U.S. dropped so low that farmers in Mexico could no longer afford to make a living growing corn. Forced out of their jobs and unable to find work in cities, many saw no choice but to move north.
The majority of farmworkers today are affected by immigration status. Almost 80% of farmworkers are foreign-born and crossed a boarder to get to the U.S. It is estimated that at least 60% of American farmworkers are undocumented. These workers lack basic rights such as obtaining a driver’s license or getting higher education. At work, undocumented status makes workers especially vulnerable to exploitation and abuse.
Advocates like Benitez are working to fix this broken system by empowering farmworkers to know and exercise their rights and putting pressure on food companies to treat workers humanely. Other organizations such as the National Farm Worker Ministry are working to reform the U.S. immigration system so that immigrants have a pathway to permanent legal resident or U.S. citizenship.
WANT TO JOIN THE FIGHT FOR TRUTH?
- Learn about Guatemalan teens forced to work against their will in the Midwest here.
- Read about exploitation in America’s chicken industry here.
- Read about the work of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and how you can get involved here.
- Read about the work of the National Farm Worker Ministry and how you can work with them here.