When a group of poor tomato pickers decided to take on the world’s largest food corporations to improve their working conditions more than a decade ago, their chances of success seemed slim.

“Many people thought we were kind of crazy because they could not imagine a change coming from the top in this way,” Gerardo Reyes said at a Fordham University forum, “The True Cost of the Low Price: Labor Trafficking and Consumerism,” held on March 24.

Gerardo Reyes displays a Rights and Responsibilities pamphlet used to educate Florida produce pickers.
Photo by Michael Dames

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers in Florida persisted in their campaign. Aided by college students who organized boycotts, Reyes said they eventually convinced Taco Bell in 2005 to sign what the workers call a fair food agreement—committing the company to pay farm workers an extra penny per pound for tomatoes harvested for growers that supply the company. The agreement also established a human-rights based code of conduct for the suppliers aimed at preventing abuses of workers.

The coalition said it has since achieved similar agreements with McDonalds, Burger King, Whole Foods and other major companies.

“It was students. It was people of faith. It was the community in general that all joined in together to make this happen,” said Claudia Saenz of the Student/Farmworker Alliance.

The agreements have resulted in more than $4 million in additional wages for the workers, Reyes said. They also have led to other reforms, including cracking down on sexual harassment, committees that address safety concerns, and the right to have shades in fields.

Growers who don’t comply with the code of conduct face being cut off from the companies that buy their tomatoes, Reyes said.

“We are starting to see changes that are really important for all the workers,” Reyes said. “It’s like a new day going on in the fields.”

Still, Reyes noted that the changes are fragile, and the companies that signed the agreements represent only a fraction of the market. Now the workers are trying to convince supermarket chains to make the same commitment.

Americans tend to associate sweat shops with other countries, but in fact they exist in this country, Reyes said. He said there have been nine cases of slavery in Florida since 1997, in which workers have suffered beatings, death threats, and forced labor.

“Many people don’t question where [their]food is coming from,” Reyes said.

When he was picking tomatoes and oranges, Reyes recalled that, even though a friend was sick with fever and on the verge of passing out, the man was forced to work in the fields. Reyes also cited a case in 2008 in which workers were chained inside a cargo truck, kicked, and punched.

To survive, many farm workers must leave their families behind in countries such as Mexico and Haiti.

Corporations use their buying power to drive wages down, he said. The campaign seeks to reverse that process.

“We can say without a doubt that our poverty is directly connected with the incredible wealth of corporations that are controlling the market,” Reyes said. “They are profiting from it. And whoever profits from the misery of human beings has a responsibility to fix it.”

In a later panel discussion Lois Harr, director of campus ministry and social action at Manhattan College, described how the college has adopted fair trade practices that involve buying products made by workers with better wages and working conditions.

“It goes a long way to helping people lead lives with human dignity,” Harr said.

The forum, which drew about 200 participants, was sponsored by Fordham’s Office of Alumni Relations, the Office of Mission and Ministry, the New York Coalition of Religious Congregations Stop Trafficking of Persons and LifeWay Network.