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The Sex Abuse Behind Your Tomatoes

Immigrant farmworkers say time to call Time’s Up on mistreatment of female farmworkers

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Farmworkers from Immokalee, Florida, and their supporters march in midtown on March 15 to call on Wendy’s to join the Fair Food Program.
Farmworkers from Immokalee, Florida, and their supporters march in midtown on March 15 to call on Wendy’s to join the Fair Food Program.

Lupe Gonzalo covers her face with her hands, leaving only her eyes visible. She’s miming the handkerchiefs young women would wear on the tomato fields to disguise their youth and protect themselves from men on the job site.

“When you’re harvesting tomatoes, you’re leaning down and bending,” Gonzalo explains. “There were people who would come by while you were leaning down and doing unwanted physical contact, touching you in ways that you didn’t want to be touched. These were crew leaders, supervisors, even fellow workers.”

Gonzalo moved alone to America in 2000 from Guatemala, at the age of 20. “We are people of the fields,” she says in her native Spanish. “Since I was very little I’ve been working in agriculture.” She did not know what she would find in her new home, only that she wanted something more than the unceasing poverty she’d endured in Guatemala.

For the last twelve years, Gonzalo has harvested tomatoes in Florida, Virginia, and North and South Carolina, a story she wants the public to hear again and again. “We had to work in silence and put our heads down, in order to deflect and not feel the harassment that was coming our way,” she says.

Gonzalo would often observe women returning sad and silent after having taken a ride with crew leaders. These leaders would lure women into their trucks by telling them they’d drive them to a different spot on the farm, and then instead would drive them to a deserted area, where they would sexually coerce, grope, or sexually assault the women. There was no one the women could report the behavior to. “Sometimes when you did that, it would make the problem even worse, which was why people were discouraged from reporting,” Gonzalo says.

Along with Julia de la Cruz, Nely Rodriguez, and Silvia Perez, three other women in the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, Gonzalo is trying to bring attention to the sexual harassment and assault female farmworkers who harvest America’s crops regularly endure. On February 28, these four women penned an open letter to the Time’s Up movement that beseeched the women of Hollywood to share their platform with the farmworker women of the South who have endured low wages, rampant sexual harassment and abuse, and some of the worst working conditions in the country.

Their goal is to encourage food retailers to join the Fair Food Program, a seventeen-year-old worker-driven social responsibility model set up by CIW that has succeeded in getting many fast food and supermarket companies to commit to improving working conditions among the employees of its food suppliers, thereby ensuring better working environments on many farms. Many major chains, including McDonald’s and Taco Bell, have since signed on. But Wendy’s has been a prominent holdout, claiming it has its own internal code of conduct and that it prefers tomatoes harvested outside of the U.S.

In response, the women staged a five-day fast last week outside the Manhattan offices of Nelson Peltz, Wendy’s largest shareholder and chair of its board of directors, which culminated in a march last Thursday beginning outside of midtown’s One Dag Hammarskjöld Plaza.

“Women agricultural laborers have for decades said, ‘Me Too,’ ” says Gonzalo. “It’s important that the media focus not just on the stories of actresses and models and high-profile figures, but also on the day-to-day struggles of workers everywhere, of women everywhere.”

***

Near the southern end of Florida is a swampy, muggy area called Immokalee, which means “my home” in the Mikasuki language. There’s a regional airport a mile from the central business district, a Seminole tribe reservation and casino, a swamp sanctuary, and not much else: 23 square miles of land, 384 acres of water, and about 24,000 people. But chances are, if you’ve ever bought or consumed a tomato, it has come from Immokalee.

Women working on the farms rise every day at five in the morning; those with children, like Gonzalo, must be up to wake their children at 3:30 a.m., preparing their breakfast and readying them for school before dawn, she shares. At 6 a.m., the women are at the bus stop, and by 7 a.m. they are at the farms.

And then, they arm themselves with buckets to await the exact moment the heat dries the tomato plant. Finally, after 10 a.m. they march forward and begin picking. This is merely the start of a workday that many times will last another twelve hours, one where farms keep workers at the ready from early morning, even if they’re simply waiting.

This is not easy work. The swamps that used to thrive here before agriculture took over the land still haunt these fields with their sticky heat. The Florida sun is not kind to naked skin. The women have to fight the plants for the fruits and vegetables. The bugs are as omnipresent as air.

If the work itself — bend, pick, stand, fill, repeat — is not easy, the working conditions are even worse. Many times, there are no bathroom breaks and no access to clean drinking water; CIW has recorded instances of workers being beaten for taking breaks.

Julia de la Cruz moved to Florida twelve years ago from Guerrero, Mexico, at the age of 22. She left behind her entire family to support them with her wages, she says in Spanish. She has worked as a migrant farmworker, chasing harvest seasons from Tennessee to Michigan to Florida and back. There’s no type of plant she hasn’t picked with her hands, including squash, cucumbers, bell peppers, tomatoes, and rice.

For her fellow farmworkers, she says, even Spanish is often a second language, as indigenous languages are their native tongues. Lacking fluency in a common language, as well as unfamiliarity with labor laws, makes them an easy mark for wage theft, as farms pay them in cash with no record of what they were owed.

Some supervisors would summon farmworkers to work around the clock without pay. Others visited the female farmworkers in the dead of night.

De la Cruz says she was lucky: She was able to ask for help from the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, who persuaded the grower to fire the farm supervisor who had subjected her to inappropriate and uninvited touching.

“I learned that the same person had raped someone before, in that same farm,” she says. “Two young women, but they were fired instead.” Though she never met them, she says, “what I told myself was that I will never let that happen to me. I will find a way out if it ever escalates beyond that, but it never did.”

***

Gonzalo first met the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in 2010 when it visited the farm she worked at; she had previously only heard of it on the radio. The CIW was launched in 1993 by farmworkers in Florida, largely women from Mexico, Guatemala, and Haiti. It describes itself as a “worker-based human rights organization internationally recognized for its achievements in the fields of social responsibility, human trafficking, and gender-based violence at work.”

In 2011, the CIW officially inaugurated the Fair Food Program (FFP), which now covers farms in Florida, Georgia, North and South Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, and New Jersey. It includes such buyers as Chipotle Mexican Grill, Taco Bell, Burger King, Subway, McDonald’s, Trader Joe’s, Walmart, and Whole Foods Market. Participating growers represent 90 percent of the tomato industry in Florida, and now include Florida pepper and strawberry farms too.

The FFP model developed after years of failed attempts to pressure the farm growers for better wages and a more protected environment. By convincing food corporations to buy tomatoes only from farms engaged in fair food practices, the CIW could force farms to join. The participating companies also pay farmworkers a penny-a-pound premium, which, according to a New York Times article from 2014, resulted in a 20 to 35 percent pay increase for the farmworkers from what they earned before and from what non-participating farms still pay their farmworkers.

“That’s where [companies’] market power comes in,” says de la Cruz. “If they can say, ‘We are not gonna buy from these farms,’ then that will trigger change down the supply chain.”

A third-party monitoring system spot-checks farms to ensure they’re in compliance with FFP standards; if they fall short, retailers immediately stop purchasing from that farm. Farmworkers also have access to a 24-hour hotline where they can report instances of abuse and have a human rights investigator come in to the farm.

Once the FFP was launched at her farm, Gonzalo says, change was swift, something that’s reflected in the yearly reports by the Fair Food Standards Council. Water and shaded breaks were suddenly a given. Reports of abuse were met with action rather than with escalation or termination. And minimum wages were implemented when the payment per bucket was not enough. But most of all, workers did not have to walk into an abusive workplace every day.

De la Cruz speaks of a moment early in the days of the CIW, in 1996, when a farmworker in Immokalee was brutally beaten by a crew leader after pausing to take a drink of water. “The community responded to that instance of violence and they organized a march directly to the house of the crew leader who had beaten this worker,” she says. “And that became a point of unity for all of us and strengthened our struggle.”

***

The Fair Food Program was not adopted without a fight. In 2001, the CIW boycotted Taco Bell, which had been pressuring suppliers for discounts, a practice that trickled down to the farmworkers in the form of low wages and a poorly regulated work environment. The company eventually agreed to join what would eventually become FFP in 2006; Chipotle followed suit in 2012, after the CIW supporters began picketing the company’s headquarters in Denver following six years of “talks.”

When pressure began mounting from CIW and its allies five years ago, Wendy’s claimed its own internal set of fair practices meant it didn’t need the FFP. Soon after, the company decided to pull its business out of Florida altogether and move it to Mexico, where abuse of workers is rampant, says de la Cruz.

“The FFP hasn’t expanded to Mexico yet, and these workers who are laboring in the fields have no access to the kinds of protections that we do,” says Gonzalo. “They don’t have a government that is vying for their human rights. There is a culture of abuse, a culture of fear. Workers cannot speak out when they face abuse and have to continue to work silently, suffering through these exploitative conditions.”

Wendy’s spokesperson Heidi Schauer tells the Voice the CIW has been “spreading false and misleading information about the Wendy’s brand in their continuing effort to extract a financial commitment from us.” The company vowed never to join the FFP — which Schauer said forces companies to pay fees directly to their suppliers’ workers — and Schauer invites readers to learn more about its position on the Wendy’s blog. (The CIW’s own response to the Wendy’s blog post can be read on its website.)

“Wendy’s is currently not buying tomatoes in Florida where the FFP operates and collects its fees,” continues Schauer. “We instead buy higher-quality, vine-ripened tomatoes in the winter months, which were not available to us in Florida. That is at the heart of the CIW’s campaign against us — we buy a lot of tomatoes for which they directly or indirectly receive no money.”

***

Both Gonzalo and de la Cruz are hopeful that they’ll find support from powerful women in the movement against sexual harassment. When she first heard of the Time’s Up movement, says de la Cruz, “I immediately thought of the FFP, and the model of worker-driven social responsibility as a way to put an end to these abuses, and what it would look like for a program like the FFP to exist in other industries like Hollywood. Could it eradicate this type of abuse there too?”

This week, CIW activists flooded Peltz’s office lines with messages of support for FFP, culminating in the march on Wendy’s. Gonzalo’s two boys, 17 and 14, joined her in New York, and in the fast last week. It haunts her that she was a mentally absent mother sometimes, her mind always back in the fields thinking about the harassment she’d have to go through again the next day.

The farmworker activists say that Wendy’s reliance on Mexican suppliers to avoid accountability for worker mistreatment is unacceptable, especially for a company that uses the image of a young girl on its logo.

“Many people go to a supermarket, or a restaurant, and they don’t think twice about the hands who picked the food, who that person was and under what conditions they were working to make that happen,” says de la Cruz.

“We are saying, ‘No more,’ ” adds Gonzalo. “Let’s create this solution so that workers don’t have to say ‘Me Too’ anymore. It’s time to say ‘no’ to abuse, and when we say ‘no,’ we mean ‘no.’ ”

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