Act for Justice: Human Rights for Farmworkers


A Day in the Life ...
It’s lunchtime, eight hours after you made the meal you are eating as fast as you can before you return to hoisting heavy buckets of tomatoes onto trucks one after the other under the smoldering Florida sun. No shade, no bathrooms and no respect make up your regular working conditions. But you are lucky—you know others are harassed or treated like captives. You remember this on your long bus ride back to the empty parking lot and on your walk home in darkness as you fold the mere token you earned in your pocket to put food on your family’s table. You are counting on earning the full $20 you were promised this week.

Slavery in Our Midst
You don’t have to go further than your dinner plate to recognize that we are intrinsically in relationship with today’s farm workers, but you may not be aware that many are victims of modern-day slavery. Some major American corporations and businesses are putting the productivity and profitability of the supply chain ahead of the quality of life of the worker.

In addition to being paid below living wage for long hours, farm workers experience deplorable working conditions such as denial of common workplace protection, sexual harassment, verbal abuse and wage theft. Some are held against their will by armed guards as employers hold their passports and visas; others are promised housing and jobs only to find themselves in labor camps.

Farm workers deserve fair working conditions and corporations need to protect their fundamental human rights. Catholic Social Teaching tells us that the economy must serve people, not the other way around. If the dignity of work is to be protected, then the basic rights of workers must be respected (U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops).

Compelled by the Gospel and by our heritage to be responsive to the dear neighbor without distinction, the U.S. Federation of the Sisters of St. Joseph is harnessing its collective power for action against the indignity of labor trafficking in collaboration with the advocacy group, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers.

This collaboration began in conjunction with the 2016 U.S. Federation event in July, when more than 700 sisters, associates and partners in mission gathered in Orlando, Florida. Continuing the anti-trafficking efforts that began at the 2011 event in St. Louis when the federation focused on ending sex trafficking in the travel and tourism industry, Event 2016’s action for justice was awareness and advocacy of labor trafficking and the exploitation of farm workers, in particular, the Immokalee workers.

The Plight of the Immokalee Workers
Southwest Florida is the state’s largest region for agricultural production and the largest farm worker community is in Immokalee. Most of the 5,000 community members are primarily Latinos, Mayan Indians and Haitian immigrants. They work for large agricultural corporations harvesting tomatoes and other crops for low wages.

In 1993, the Immokalees created the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), 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. CIW helped pioneer anti-trafficking efforts in the United States, in particular with its Fair Food Program.

Developed in 2011, the program is a unique partnership between growers, farmers and retail food companies to ensure humane wages and working conditions for those who pick fruits and vegetables on participating farms.

The program is funded by an extra penny per pound of harvested food, money that is used to ensure fair working conditions.

Call to Action: Wendy’s Restaurants
Consumers can choose to voice their support for the Fair Food Program by frequenting partner businesses such as Taco Bell, McDonald’s, Subway, Burger King, Walmart, Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods.

Despite the many successful partnerships, Wendy’s is the largest fast food chain yet to comply. In fact, Wendy’s has moved their purchasing to a tomato grower in Mexico, where a major case of slavery was uncovered in 2013.

“Unfortunately, bad and abusive conditions continue to persist in the agricultural industry,” says Lupe Gonzalo, a farm worker and now leader in the CIW who shared her experiences at the federation event. “There’s so much left to be done, but the important thing is to continue working together as consumers and farm workers, to be able to win the changes that are necessary in the fields.”

With a collaborative multi-pronged approach, the Sisters of St. Joseph have joined with CIW to encourage Wendy’s to commit that penny per pound to protect the rights of the farm workers. The CIW is calling for a boycott of Wendy’s. The federation’s accompanying strategy is to secure a seat at the table through corporate shareholder investing, to participate in a letter-writing campaign, and to encourage people to engage in direct conversations with local managers to elicit corporate response.

The writing campaign was launched at the federation event, with attendees signing postcards to Wendy’s president and letters to its board of directors. Event panelist Sister Mary Ellen Gondeck, CSJ says that the cards and letters serve as the indicator to let Wendy’s know there is a boycott that is impacting their bottom line.

Learn, Reflect, Act
Since the summer event, the St. Louis province has continued its support of this action in numerous ways.

Staff members attended an in-service based on the federation event presentation that included education, reflection and action by participating in the writing campaign. And, an article about the efforts in the St. Louis Review led some CSJ representatives to connect with the Central Reform Congregation to deliver letters and protest at a local Wendy’s.

Association Co-director Kay Komotos, CSJA, who attended the federation event, felt called to get involved by co-leading the in-service with Communications Director Jenny Beatrice, as well as attending the protest.

“At the event, we saw the faces of those victims of labor trafficking and we cannot look the other way,” says Kay. “We cannot be complacent, we cannot be indifferent. We learn, we reflect and then we understand the importance of action to work toward correcting the injustice.”

Pray for victims of human trafficking with our video prayer.


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