Civil Society, Economy & Trade, Headlines, Human Rights, Labour, Migration & Refugees, North America

OP-ED: To Break the Bonds of Injustice

Kerry Kennedy*

CIW member farmworkers at a rally in Lakeland, Florida on Apr. 18, 2010. Credit: Andrew Stelzer/IPS

NEW YORK, Mar 8 2012 (IPS) - Forty-six years ago, at a Senate subcommittee hearing on migratory labour, U.S. Senator Robert Kennedy listened in disgust as California’s Kern County Sheriff explained the arrests of peaceful picketers brought on by mounting pressure from farm owners.

Senator Kennedy responded: “I suggest you and the district attorney read the Constitution of the United States.”

Two years later, my father took time out during the crucial days before he announced his candidacy for president, to join 8,000 farm workers at Mass, where he gave the Eucharist to Cesar Chavez. With that simple and symbolic act, Chavez broke his 25-day fast, which, along with a nationwide boycott of grapes, won concessions from growers and empowered California’s farm workers.

Florida’s farm workers, however, had no such champion in 1968. And as a result, their working conditions remain much the same as they were 40 years ago – they work 10 to 14-hour days, seven days a week. They have no right to form a union, no right to a day off per week, no right to overtime pay or disability.

This is thanks in part to the legacy of Jim Crow. Dixiecrats threatened to block President Roosevelt’s Federal Labor Relations Act unless it exempted farm workers and domestic servants, who were predominantly African American. As a result, neither group received the federal protection all other workers enjoyed. Moreover, the rules varied by state, so rights won by Chavez in California had little impact on farm workers in Florida or anywhere else in the country.

Today, conditions in the fields are horrific, with little access to sanitary facilities (think of that next time you bite into a tomato) or potable water, and for women in particular, little protection from their bosses’ sexual assaults. Even minimum wage is denied, and most workers are paid by the piece, with the average rate of 50 cents for every 32 pounds of tomatoes they pick, virtually the same rate they were paid in 1980.

To earn minimum wage during the course of a 10-hour day, a worker must pick over 2.25 tonnes of tomatoes – nearly twice the amount needed more than 30 years ago when the standard rate was 40 cents. Given these statistics, it’s not surprising to learn that on average farm workers barely earn 12,000 dollars a year.

Since 1997, the work of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) has led to the successful prosecution of seven modern-day slavery operations, emancipating over 1,000 people over the last 14 years. Two additional cases are now in the courts.

On Mar. 10, 2012, I will join the CIW in Lakeland, Florida, to commemorate the anniversary of Chavez’s historic non-violent protest and remind the world that injustice of any kind will not be allowed to prevail.

As Robert Kennedy broke bread with Cesar Chavez in 1968, so allies from around the country will join members of the Immokalee Workers who are fasting at Publix Super Market headquarters, calling on the Florida-based supermarket chain to meet with CIW to address abuses in its supply chain. To date, Publix executives have declined to meet with CIW representatives and have not answered a single letter.

Faced with growing injustices, CIW has responded with a courageous and innovative initiative – the Fair Food Campaign – to bring justice to the agricultural industry. Over the past 10 years, the Coalition, which is comprised of over 4,000 Haitian, African-American, Guatemalan, Mayan, and Mexican farm workers, has achieved nine precedent-setting agreements with industry leaders to improve conditions in the workplace and empower workers to protect their rights.

These agreements include paying a penny more per pound of tomatoes picked, a no-tolerance policy for slavery in the fields, and a code of conduct developed with the farm workers.

The agreements are unprecedented because they leverage the purchasing power of the most powerful actors in agriculture to address the most vulnerable sector of the industry and some of the poorest and most vulnerable people in our country. The campaign depends on the support of industry leaders, which today includes McDonalds, Taco Bell, Burger King, Subway, WholeFoods, Trader Joes, Compass Group, Sodexho, and Aramark.

Sadly, it is in their own backyard that CIW has received the most resistance, as Publix has refused to discuss abuses in its supply chain.

In 1968, Sen. Kennedy spoke of Chavez as “one of the heroic leaders of our time.” The members of CIW carry on his heroic legacy and for their tireless efforts, in 2003, three Immokalee Workers received the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award. Thus began an intensive partnership with the RFK Center that helped advance the cause of the Campaign for Fair Food in Florida and brought national attention to the indignities that we allow in our agricultural industry.

It was evident to Robert Kennedy that inaction in the face of injustice was unacceptable. Forty-six years later, we urge Publix to demonstrate the courage of conviction to uphold that principle and come to the table with CIW.

*Kerry Kennedy is the President of the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights.

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