Farmworkers march from Pahokee to Palm Beach to protest modern slavery in the agricultural fields
Current and former farmworkers, allies and religious leaders are marching across a large swath of Florida.
They are calling on retail food giants like Wendy’s, Publix and Kroger to join the Fair Food Program, a human-rights initiative that many of their competitors joined over a decade ago.
Some 100 people headed off, marching in pairs along rural roads in the south-central Florida agricultural town in Pahokee.
Over several days, these mostly current or former farmworkers as well as their families, will continue to push east, carrying banners calling for human rights, until they reach the island of Palm Beach.
There’s a reason the Coalition of Immokalee Workers picked these starting and end points.
In late December, Bladimir Moreno, the owner of Los Villatoros Harvesting, a labor contract company, was sentenced to nine years in federal prison for federal racketeering and operating a forced labor camp in Pahokee.
Workers were denied promised wages, held at gun point and kept behind barbed-wire fences at night. Two men did escape in the trunk of a vehicle and raced south to Immokalee, a place once well-known for decades to be Ground Zero for modern slavery.
But a movement that began in 1993 with the creation of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers has nearly eradicated these harsh labor camps where migrant workers come in search of an opportunity to feed to families back home.
The workers held demonstrations and hunger strikes to draw attention to inhumane conditions in the tomato fields. But more, organizers say, was needed.
In 2010, the workers’ group created the Fair Food Program. Participating retail giants such as McDonald’s, Burger King, Walmart, and Trader Joes agreed to only do business with growers that adhere to a code of conduct which outlines protections for farmworkers.
Such protections are as simple as providing water and agreeing that sexual misconduct will not be tolerated. Newly arriving workers are trained about their rights and the growers are audited by a third party.
Another cornerstone is pay.
The retailers agree to paying roughly one penny more per pound to the grower. That money in turn is given to workers in the form of a bonus. To date $40 million has been re-distributed impacting some 30,000 workers each season.
As it is now, workers make about 65 cents for each 32-pound bucket they harvest.
The additional bonuses are critical and fair, farmer and advocate like Matt Montavan of Sarasota said.
He said he’s marching, for the rights of the farmworkers, for the end of slavery in the fields and for justice.
“I think we have to respect where our food comes from and to (give) justice to the people that harvest it for us,” Montavan said.
He had this to say to Wendy’s, Publix, and Kroger: “It’s time to join the program and do justice to the people that bring your food to your stores.”
The march will end on Saturday in Palm Beach, where Wendy’s chairman of the board Nelson Peltz lives.
In a written statement, a spokesperson said since 2019 Wendy’s North American tomato supply is exclusively from indoor, hydroponic greenhouse farms, whereas the Fair Food Program revolves largely around outdoor, more traditional tomato fields.
Wendy’s said the company has a code of conduct that it requires of its suppliers to adhere and there is also a third party review. Over the years, the Coalition of Immokalee Worker says it has asked for transparency about Wendy’s stated business practices but it has not been provided details.
Gerardo Reyes Chavez, a farmworker and organizer for the Coalition of Immokalee Workers said it is time for the hold-outs to join the program: “This is not a problem of the farmworkers, this is a problem of society. We all benefit from the meals, from the food that ends up on our tables.”
Hundreds more are expected to join the marchers in Palm Beach on Saturday.
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