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Immokalee on My Mind

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Ready to join #Tomatoclergy and CIW staff to protest in front of Wendy’s at busy intersection in Naples

 

Recently, I returned to Immokalee for the better part of three days thanks to a program sponsored by T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, under the able leadership of Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster, I learned so much.

Immokalee is where 90% of all tomatoes eaten fresh in the eastern United States are grown. It is one of the state’s poorest cities but a scant half hour away from one of the richest, Naples.

While many residents of Naples live lives of splendor; life for those in Immokalee is difficult, mired in poverty even after hours of backbreaking work in the fields.

They make their living in the vast tomato fields where, not long ago, rampant sexual abuse, pitiful working conditions and equally pitiful, sub-poverty wages were the backdrop for their efforts.

Complaints against these abuses met with summary dismissal.

The sorry history of farm work in southwest Florida also includes episodes of forced labor in which workers found themselves locked up in windowless and bathroom-less trucks overnight or housed behind barbed-wire enclosures patrolled by armed guards to keep them from escaping. Field foreman often denied workers access to shade, water and bathroom breaks.  There are several documented cases of workers being beaten.


But in the early 1990s, the workers began organizing, determined to change conditions in the fields and better their own lives. The organization they founded, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), started by trying to change conditions on the farms directly, attempting to get cooperation from the farm owners. But in 2001, they tried an innovative new strategy, holding the giant corporations at the top of the supply chain responsible for human rights abuses and low wages at the bottom.

The Fair Food Program demands that major food retailers pay a penny more per pound of tomatoes (paid directly to workers and aimed at increasing wages) and buy only from growers who had committed to stringent, legally binding human rights monitoring in the fields. 

One of the highlights of my three days in Immokalee was visiting the vast tomato fields of Sun Ripe Certified Brands, of Pacific Tomato Growers. There, in a lovely auditorium designed for worker educational sessions we met with the company’s human resources director, Jessica Castillo who told us: “When as a child, I saw my mother get up in the middle of the night to go out into the fields and be subject to all of the abuses . . . I never imagined that today I would be here paid by the company to provide mandatory education for workers on their basic rights. I am proud that workers seek out our company as a place to work and know that if they ever have a grievance it will be heard with sympathy and dealt with appropriately.”

Unfortunately, Publix, the largest grocery chain in southwest Florida, and Wendy’s’ have so far refused to join the Fair Food Program. I am so inspired by the optimism of the members of the CIW. I love that when CIW’s Lupe Gonzalo addressed us, she did not refer to Wendy’s as an enemy but as “a future partner” in advancing justice in the fields.

To encourage this “future partner” to hasten the day she joins the alliance, I joined seven other clergy people and a group of CIW workers in a demonstration in front of a Wendy’s at a busy intersection in Naples. Thousands of cars drove by, and many honked their horns in support.

Why does this matter to me?

Our Torah teaches there is no such thing as an innocent bystander in the face of injustice (DT 22:3), that we must pay our workers promptly and fairly (LV 19:13) and that we may not stand idly by while our neighbor suffers. (LV19:16)`

Because I take these teachings very seriously, I encourage you to communicate with Wendy’s and Publix about the Fair Food Program. Ask to see the store manager and tell them that a penny per pound is a small price to pay for basic human dignity.

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