Farmworkers Say “Us Too,” Demanding Freedom From Sexual Violence

Michelle Chen

On November 20, farmworkers and their supporters marched through Manhattan to demand that Wendy's join the Fair Food Program of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. (Photo courtesy of CIW)

Ahead of the Thanks­giv­ing feast, the Coali­tion of Immokalee Work­ers (CIW) hit mid­town Man­hat­tan on Mon­day to face down the suits with chants of Exploita­tion has got to go!” CIW was there to demand humane work­ing con­di­tions on their farms.

Pep­pered with brass-band musi­cians and street pup­pets, the pro­test­ers ral­lied at the New York, N.Y. offices of the fast food giant Wendy’s.

CIW mem­bers hoist­ed toma­to and buck­et-shaped pick­et signs with slo­gans like free­dom from sex­u­al vio­lence” and Jus­ti­cia” to face off against Wendy’s cheery, red pig­tails. They demand­ed fair wages and free­dom from vio­lence and exploitation.

This week’s march, part of the coalition’s mul­ti-city tour to pro­mote its Fair Food labor pro­tec­tion pro­gram, put women work­ers at the front­lines, protest­ing the epi­dem­ic of sex­u­al assault in agri­cul­tur­al labor, which affects as many as eight in ten women.

Decades before labor-rela­tions courts and bureau­cra­cy-laden con­tract nego­ti­a­tions, work­place dis­putes with pow­er­ful cor­po­ra­tions were resolved with fists and clubs. And in Trump’s Amer­i­ca, CIW work­ers are turn­ing Florida’s vast toma­to fields into the lat­est front­line in the strug­gle for the rights and dig­ni­ty of immi­grant communities.

As farm­work­er women, this expe­ri­ence pos­es an incred­i­bly hard choice; we don’t have anoth­er job, we have to suf­fer this abuse, because we have a fam­i­ly to main­tain,” said orga­niz­er Lupe Gon­za­lo, speak­ing on the vio­lence that stalks women work­ing the fields, at an Octo­ber gath­er­ing at a Min­neso­ta the­ater. Our silence is some­thing we must grow accus­tomed to every day.”

Voic­es like Gonzalo’s rarely take the pub­lic spot­light in con­ver­sa­tions on sex­u­al vio­lence and dis­crim­i­na­tion, but her words res­onate deeply on the edges of the econ­o­my. As a minor­i­ty in a male-dom­i­nat­ed work­force, work­ing in bru­tal, iso­lat­ed con­di­tions, women are exposed dai­ly to sex­u­al vio­lence, be it cowork­ers’ harass­ment or rape by supervisors.

Although agribusi­ness cor­po­ra­tions have his­tor­i­cal­ly failed to address sex­u­al abuse in their sup­ply chains, CIW mem­bers say they’ve vir­tu­al­ly elim­i­nat­ed sex­u­al harass­ment from the fields they’ve orga­nized via tar­get­ed enforce­ment, broad-based mon­i­tor­ing and work­er edu­ca­tion efforts. Addi­tion­al­ly, strong com­mu­ni­ty sup­port and the group’s pio­neer­ing Fair Food Pro­gram (FFP) has helped break the cul­ture of silence in the fields by mak­ing women’s rights everybody’s busi­ness — from cowork­ers and neigh­bors all the way up to multi­na­tion­al restau­rant chains.

Wendy’s is now the lone hold­out among the large restau­rant chains that CIW has pushed over the years to sign onto its FFP code of con­duct. Since the 1990s, the group has marched on col­lege cam­pus­es, ral­lied at cor­po­rate offices and lob­bied on Capi­tol Hill to pro­mote an inno­v­a­tive form of col­lec­tive work­er pro­tec­tion that has evolved into FFP’s work­er-led social respon­si­bil­i­ty system.

Though not a for­mal union con­tract, the pro­gram’s mod­el, which now pro­tects some 35,000 work­ers, essen­tial­ly pro­vides a bill of rights for thou­sands of labor­ers in Florida’s heav­i­ly con­sol­i­dat­ed agribusi­ness sec­tor to pro­mote struc­tur­al change at all lev­els of the indus­try. The bind­ing agree­ment man­dates that all com­pa­nies in the sup­ply chain — includ­ing grow­ers and retail­ers — pro­vide an addi­tion­al pen­ny-per-pound pre­mi­um that is passed through to pick­ers. This adds a con­sid­er­able amount to work­ers’ annu­al wages. Mean­while, the agree­ment ensures enforce­able stan­dards for fair work­ing con­di­tions, job secu­ri­ty through direct, long-term employ­ment and due process for abuse complaints.

The coali­tion’s work­er-dri­ven social respon­si­bil­i­ty mod­el sets a zero tol­er­ance” rule for vio­la­tions to pre­vent wage theft, traf­fick­ing and work­place sex­u­al violence.

If there is a farm that is par­tic­i­pat­ing that is refus­ing to cor­rect the sit­u­a­tion in a time­ly fash­ion and bring swift con­se­quences for abusers, then the mar­ket con­se­quences kick in, because the cor­po­ra­tions can no longer buy from those farms,” Oscar Otzoy, a CIW orga­niz­er, told In These Times.

He says the under­ly­ing pow­er of the process is its trans­for­ma­tion­al effect on the work­er com­mu­ni­ty by help­ing train and empow­er work­ers as their own advo­cates for rights and safe­ty at work.

One of the essen­tial ele­ments of the coali­tion is that it is led by farm­work­ers them­selves, and so we are from that com­mu­ni­ty,” Otzoy says. We share the same val­ues and the same expe­ri­ences and the same real­i­ties, so there is trust with work­ers that their com­plaints will be brought to a solution.”

Often that solu­tion is not just pun­ish­ment, but also ensur­ing that the vic­tim will receive need­ed reha­bil­i­ta­tion services.

The CIW’s cam­paign has tar­get­ed a host of large chain restau­rants, super­mar­kets and insti­tu­tion­al pur­chasers, like uni­ver­si­ty food ven­dors. But unlike Whole Foods and Taco Bell, Wendy’s con­tin­ues to insist that its own cor­po­rate code of con­duct can effec­tive­ly be applied instead of the FFP.

In a state­ment sent to In These Times, Wendy’s said that it is pro­mot­ing human rights and safe work­ing con­di­tions” through its own social respon­si­bil­i­ty pro­gram, with assur­ances and require­ments relat­ed to human rights and labor prac­tices.” The com­pa­ny dis­missed CIW’s cam­paign as part of a com­mer­cial dis­pute,” since Wendy’s refus­es to pay fees to their orga­ni­za­tion” to sup­port FFP.

Wary of self-reg­u­lat­ing cor­po­rate stan­dards, the CIW coun­ters that the com­pa­ny is actu­al­ly deriv­ing a very real cost advan­tage over its com­peti­tors, while con­tin­u­ing to pro­vide an alter­na­tive mar­ket for less rep­utable growers.”

But while CIW’s mod­el has gar­nered high-pro­file acco­lades, includ­ing hon­ors from the Oba­ma White House, it has also got­ten the atten­tion of anti-labor activists. The right-wing watch­dog” Cen­ter for Union Facts (CUF) issued a com­plaint in ear­ly Novem­ber to fed­er­al tax author­i­ties chal­leng­ing CIW’s tax-exempt sta­tus as an edu­ca­tion­al char­i­ty, insist­ing that CIW is in fact a union front group — and should be reg­u­lat­ed as such.

Paint­ing the CIW’s protests as mob-like tac­tics pro­mot­ing harass­ment” of com­pa­nies, the CUF argues, CIW is essen­tial­ly a group oper­at­ing for the pri­vate finan­cial ben­e­fit of a small class of peo­ple (cer­tain agri­cul­tur­al workers).”

CIW defines its small class” as the whole farm­work­er pro­le­tari­at, and their mod­el devel­oped in response to the struc­tur­al bar­ri­ers to union­iza­tion in the high­ly strat­i­fied agri­cul­tur­al work­force where work­ers are unsta­ble, often undoc­u­ment­ed and intense­ly poor.

They oper­ate like a union in terms of engag­ing in nego­ti­a­tions with boss­es, but have more tac­ti­cal agili­ty in that they do not rely on insti­tu­tion­al­ized majori­tar­i­an rep­u­ta­tion but grass­roots mobilization.

As for the com­plaint about its tax sta­tus, Otzoy said those who com­plain are just try­ing to roll back the human rights advances that we’ve been able to achieve.”

The FFP has spread wide­ly, and CIW is work­ing to bring their mod­el to straw­ber­ry, pep­per and dairy farms else­where in the Unit­ed States. It’s the work­ers who are still speak­ing on behalf of them­selves and mov­ing for­ward the move­ment,” Otzoy says.

So when CIW work­er-activists ampli­fy women’s voic­es from Florida’s toma­to har­vests into the Manhattan’s streets, they put mus­cle behind Gon­za­lo’s dec­la­ra­tion as she spoke to com­mu­ni­ties across coun­try: We had to draw on enor­mous strength and courage in order to break our silence — but also, we did not do it alone.”

Michelle Chen is a con­tribut­ing writer at In These Times and The Nation, a con­tribut­ing edi­tor at Dis­sent and a co-pro­duc­er of the Bela­bored” pod­cast. She stud­ies his­to­ry at the CUNY Grad­u­ate Cen­ter. She tweets at @meeshellchen.

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