Farm Workers Walk for Freedom

Mathieu Beaucicot came to the U.S. from Haiti in 1992 looking for a better life. He left a wife and five daughters behind. But he found that the American Dream was a lot different than he had expected. He ended up picking tomatoes and oranges in Immokalee, Florida, a small swampy town about an hour's drive from Fort Myers. He would start his days at 4 a.m. in a parking lot waiting to get on one of the old school buses that take workers to the fields, and would get home at 7 or 8 p.m. Most workers earn about $$40-50 a day in the fields, if they're lucky, wages that have hardly risen in decades.

The name Immokalee is derived from the Seminole word for "home." But Beaucicot felt far from at home in Immokalee. "I work so hard for almost no money," he said in Spanish with a soft Caribbean lilt. His native language is Creole, but he has picked up Spanish from the many Guatemalans, Mexicans, Hondurans and other Latin American immigrants who work here.

"After I pay for rent and food I have no money left to send back to my family," he said. "In Haiti there was no money and the work was hard but you could have a beer, relax, spend time with your family. Here all you do is work. I work when I'm tired, I work when I'm sick and I get no Medicaid, no Social Security, no health insurance."

On Sunday, Nov. 16, Beaucicot and about 50 other farm workers with the Coalition for Immokalee Workers set out on the 34-mile Root Cause March from Fort Lauderdale to Miami to draw attention to the plight of farm workers and to oppose the Free Trade Area of the Americas agreement, which they note would both harm farm workers and the poor in the U.S. and cause increasing poverty and displacement in the "third world" countries which they come from. In Miami some of the workers will join the protests against the FTAA.

This march should be no problem for Beaucicot, given that three years ago he and other workers went on a whopping 230-mile march from Fort Myers to Orlando to protest outside the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association demanding higher wages.

Tactics like these have gained much local and national attention for the Coalition, whose office is located right next to one of the main pickup sites for workers. It has also become known for its role in helping expose and prosecute five human slavery rings in the past six years. On Nov. 20, three coalition members -- Lucas Benitez, Julia Gabriel and Romeo Ramirez -- will receive the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award in Washington D.C., making them the first members of a U.S. organization to receive the honor.

Most recently three men in Lake Placid, about 60 miles from Immokalee, were convicted on federal charges of slavery and extortion for holding immigrant workers under armed guard 24 hours a day and forcing them to work in the fields in a never-ending cycle of debt slavery. The slavery convictions shed light on a seedy underside of the economy that most people are completely unaware of. But the Department of Labor has estimated that five to 10 percent of produce in the U.S. is picked by people laboring in conditions of slavery. These slaves are mainly immigrants from Central America, Mexico, Haiti and other desperately poor countries who owe thousands of dollars to the smugglers who helped them get into the U.S. The smugglers literally sell them and their debt to agricultural contractors, who hold them under armed guard and force them to work in the fields, deducting almost all of their pay for food and boarding at run-down trailers or shacks owned by the contractors themselves. Those who try to escape slavery operations have been shot at and severely beaten; in one case investigated by the FBI the driver of a van picking up fleeing workers was even beaten up. After Ramirez went under cover in Lake Placid three other coalition members helped a number of workers escape the camp.

"The work of these incredible human rights defenders is pivotal in this day and era as it uncovers the ugly truth that modern-day slavery exists in the U.S.," says Todd Howland, director of the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Center for Human Rights.

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers formed in 1995 to address the numerous human rights violations suffered by workers, including violence, unpaid wages, threats and terrible working conditions. At that time, beatings and death threats against workers by the contractors who are hired to recruit and manage them were a daily occurrence.

"If someone would try to get a drink they would fire a pistol in the air to scare people," said Francisca Cortez, a farm worker and coalition staff member who immigrated here from Oaxaca, Mexico five years ago. One of the coalition's early major actions was a march on the house of a contractor who had beaten a worker for getting a drink of water. Several nights before the Root Cause march, the workers projected a video of that protest on the corrugated metal outside wall of their office. The video shows the protesters carrying the bloodied shirt of the beaten worker above their heads. "Now things like that don't really happen, because they know if our rights are violated we will march," said Cortez. "We let them know that we consider an injury to one to be an injury to all."

If they come to at least two of the coalition's weekly meetings, which center heavily on popular education techniques including skits and drawings, workers get a laminated CIW I.D. card. Cortez noted that employers not only in Florida but up the East Coast have learned to have respect for the card. "In North Carolina a boss told his workers they couldn't have a lunch break," she said. "They showed their CIW cards and he let them. They called us and said, 'The cards even work up here!'"

Even with the reductions in outright violence and slavery that the coalition's work and the federal prosecutions have achieved, coalition members note that "free" workers still toil in oppressive conditions that often make them feel like slaves. "Even if there are no armed guards, people are still enslaved by low wages and unhealthy working conditions," said Benitez, 27, an immigrant from Guerrero, Mexico. "The root of these problems is the same as the root of slavery, the desperation of immigrants to make a living and the way that allows people to exploit them."

For example, a Guatemalan woman who has been working in Immokalee for over 10 years noted that workers picking tomatoes often suffer chronic flu-like symptoms from the pesticides on the plants. Because of this she switched to picking squash at an organic farm, but there she found herself underpaid, subjected to abuse and threats by a drunken supervisor, and working without access to a bathroom all day.

In an effort to make systematic change in the agricultural industry, the coalition is developing a strategy of targeting the corporate buyers and commercial consumers of their products along with the growers and contractors. "It's not just about running away from the individual situation because not everyone can do that," said Gerardo Reyes, 26, a coalition staff member who came here five years ago from Zacatecas, Mexico. "It's a matter of changing the industry, and you do that by raising awareness and targeting not only the contractors and the growers but the corporations that buy the produce and the consumers who buy the products made by the corporations."

They have already had considerable success with a one-and-a-half-year-old campaign to boycott Taco Bell, since it is the major buyer of tomatoes from Immokalee. They note that if Taco Bell paid one cent more for each bushel of tomatoes, tomato pickers' wages could be roughly doubled. So far, Taco Bell has refused to meet this demand. With the assistance of students the coalition has kicked Taco Bell out of about 20 college and high school campuses.

The Taco Bell campaign will be a major focus of the march to Miami, where they also aim to raise awareness of free trade's effects on poor workers throughout the world. Thanks to the coalition's efforts there is probably already more awareness about the FTAA per capita in Immokalee than in most major cities. The walls of money transfer outfits, taquerias and apartment buildings are plastered with fliers about the march and the FTAA, and for a week before the march the coalition handed out free coffee and bread along with fliers about the FTAA to workers starting at 4 in the morning.

“Señores, the time has arrived for the free coffee," Ramirez called out over a megaphone into the chilly darkness the day before the march, quickly drawing crowds of workers over from the parking lot where the buses were waiting to take them to the fields. As they got coffee, sweet bread and steaming cups of oatmeal, Ramirez said, "This is the last day to sign up for the march to Miami. If you can't come on the march, please learn this information. It will make the rich richer and the poor poorer." The next evening at the pre-march meeting, it was obvious his early morning message and the rest of the campaign had had an effect. The room was filled with men and a handful of women ready to go on the march; some of them long-time coalition members and some in the office for the first time. Some reclined wearily on the couches, others leaned forward with excitement on the folding chairs.

"I'm not afraid, this will be a good march," said a middle-aged man from Vera Cruz, Mexico, still covered in mud from his day in the fields. The coalition members see raising awareness about the FTAA and the role of corporations like Taco Bell in the oppression of workers as just as much a part of the struggle for human rights as their work exposing slavery. "When they've been negotiating something in secret for over six years, with the investors and the people who own companies, when they're trying to change the constitutional laws of countries to favor the people with money and power, you know there's nothing good about it," said Reyes. "They're not asking the poor, they're not asking the needy and the hungry, instead they're making their money off the poor. A lot of people in Mexico, in poor countries around the world, don't know about the FTAA. But we know we are poor, and we just need to ask ourselves why. The answer is free trade and corruption. That's why we're taking to the streets and making our voices heard."

Kari Lydersen, a regular contributor to AlterNet, also writes for the Washington Post and is an instructor for the Urban Youth International Journalism Program in Chicago. She can be reached at karilyde@aol.com.

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