Farmworkers Vigil at BAIC

(Nov. 23 – Baltimore, MD) Sometimes major movements begin by a simple drink of water.

A Farmworkers Rights Vigil organized by Just Harvest took place at the Baltimore American Indian Center (BAIC) on 113 S. Broadway in Fells Point, Baltimore.

Just Harvest, recently formed by veteran organizer Marina Saenz, is dedicated to social justice and human rights for immigrant farmworkers of color.

Participants danced to son jaracho music, ate homemade tamales, drank spiced hot chocolate and learned about the latest struggles for dignity among a long time exploited class of human beings.

There was a video shown of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a 16-year old organization led by Lucas Benitez. It was galvanized by the brutal beating by a boss of a worker who just wanted to get water from a garden hose.

Farmworkers not only contend with the lack of breaks and backbreaking work for measly pay. There are those who have been victims of indentured servitude, human trafficking and modern day slavery.

On Nov. 18, 2007, 12 workers were held against their will in a cargo truck and beaten by crew leaders. Of those apprehended, five pled guilty on federal charges and sentenced to 12 years in prison.

The crew leaders who are enslaving the workers are undocumented Latinos, while their bosses are white. Their practice of robbing the workers’ wages happens predominantly in rural areas in Florida. There have been 1000 such reported cases that have ended up in court. For every case that surfaces, however, there are approximately 12 that are undocumented.

Florida’s Assistant US Attorney Doug Malloy said that the state is ground zero for slavery type cases.

“Workers are in a climate of fear,” said Saenz, who spoke of the oppressive conditions within the farmworker industry. “Some disappear.”

According to Saenz, the fast food industry is the biggest purchasers of farmworker products, and in turn their largest exploiters.

Four years ago, CIW won a victory from the fast food chain Taco Bell after about six years worth of protests and boycotts, galvanizing people from all walks of life including community, political, and religious leaders.

What were they asking? The average Florida tomato picker throws a 32 lb. bucket of tomato into a truck 125 times a day – 4,000 lbs. a day. For that they receive subminimum wage.

The CIW asked Taco Bell for a raise for each worker of one penny more for each bucket, which on the surface does not sound like much, but in actuality doubles each worker’s earnings – collectively to the tune of $100,000.

CIW wrote two letters to Taco Bell, both of which were ignored. They began a boycott of Taco Bell in 2001, during the launch of their Campaign for Fair Food.

Still, Taco Bell balked at every demand. CIW’s pressure built to the point where they could no longer afford to ignore their demands – and maintain their public image.

During a 10-day hunger strike in March 2003, CIW strategically used Taco Bell’s favorite mascot – the Chihuahua – to drive home their point of worker exploitation.

Taco Bell’s final acquiescence in March 2005 led to other companies to heed CIW’s demands – Subway, McDonalds, and Burger King. Whole Foods also signed a human rights agreement.

For their efforts, CIW received the 2007 Anti-Slavery Award by the oldest international human rights organization globally, Anti-Slavery International.

On May 8, 2009, they won the 17th annual Salem Award for Human Rights and Social Justice “for its work to eliminate modern day slavery in the agricultural industry.”

Although CIW has received numerous other awards and recognitions, for them the fight is far from over. A national network called the Alliance for Fair Food is now targeting Trader Joe’s, Chipotle, Giant Foods, and Stop & Shop.

CIW and its allies are targeting the largest farmworker exploiters: Publix – which operates throughout Florida and the southeast, Wal-mart, Krogers Co, Aramark, Sodexo, and Ahold USA which owns Giant Foods.

On Sunday, Dec. 6, Lakeland, Fla. will be the site of CIW’s Walk for Farmworker Justice, to kick off their Fair Food Solidarity Tour which runs Dec. 6-12.

They will assemble at 2:30pm at the Lakeland Publix (Southgate Plaza) and march 2.2 miles down Florida Ave. to Kryger Park on Massachusetts Ave., where a rally and candlelight vigil will be held.

At the BAIC there were crowns made from arts and crafts displayed on a table. Saenz explained, “CIW’s principle is we are all leaders.”

To learn more, contact the Coalition of Immokalee Workers at

~ by wheresthemic on November 25, 2009.

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