Chinedu Ezeife is a first year student in Temple U.’s Honors program studying Neuroscience. He grew up in Abuja, Nigeria and eventually wants to become a neurosurgeon so he can help the majority of Nigerians lack access to treatment.
At Temple University last week, I attended a presentation by “Tomato” Rabbi Lauren Grabelle Hermann and then I found myself, impassioned, barging into a nearby Wendy’s and demanding to see the manager.
Rabbi Hermann’s presentation about the activism of Immokalee workers made me aware of a profound injustice and the brave workers organizing…and winning! Men and women—mostly migrants from Mexico and Central America—working on tomato fields in Florida face violence, physical, psychological abuse and violation of their dignity in order to survive while we nonchalantly eat the fruits of their sweat and blood.
As a result of the harsh conditions and absurdly low pay of these workers, The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) created The Fair Food Program (FFP) which seeks to create better working conditions and better pay for the tomato harvesters. By agreeing to be part of the Fair Food Program, corporations align themselves with the objectives of the FFP hence they help to create better working conditions on the farm, pay a small but vital premium to improve workers’ pay and purchase exclusively from growers who meet the standards.
According to Rabbi Hermann, in Florida, a worker earns 50 cents for every 32 pounds of tomatoes he/she picks. To earn just minimum wage a worker has to pick 2.5 tons of tomatoes in a typical 10-hour workday. This is the little monetary compensation these people are given after toiling in the midday Florida sun. Rabbi Hermann described her visit with other “Tomato Rabbis” to Immokalee, recounting how the tomato pickers had lived under egregious conditions. Agricultural workers are forced to live, overcrowded, in small shacks at inflated prices.
Many of the pickers cannot speak English and until they organized, had nobody to speak on their behalf. Sexual harassment and abuse is a chronic problem, women often having no recourse to predatory supervisors, but because of the CIW and FFP, workers are able to report cases, some ending with dismissals. Their organizing efforts have made many growers accountable and working conditions have substantially improved.
Physical abuse for minor infractions was not uncommon. One significant episode: after working for many hours under the Florida sun, a young boy asked his supervisor if he could drink some water. This request for water eventually led to him being beaten with his shirt soaked in his own blood. We saw the picture of that blood-stained shirt, and the Immokalee organizing drive, in part instigated by this episode, used it as a sort of flag when they begun their organizing drive just a few years ago.
Despite all this, not all fast food corporations – and only a handful of supermarkets – are participating in the FFP. Wendy’s, unlike its competitors McDonald’s, Burger King, Subway, and Taco Bell, has refused to participate. When Rabbi Hermann mentioned this I felt a great shock which eventually turned to rage; how could such a corporation earning millions of dollars a year refuse to be part of a program that would make the lives of many pickers a little better?
The CIW, through the collaborative efforts of students, got Taco Bell to sign the Fair Food Agreement (FFA). At the University of Pennsylvania, students co-operated to pressure Taco Bell before being allowed to open on campus. I thought ‘if Penn students can work together to get Taco Bell to sign the FFA, why can’t we Temple students work together to get Wendy’s to sign the Agreement?’ I was inspired! I felt the urge to walk up to the Wendy’s manager, show the picture of the blood-stained shirt, and ask why Wendy’s has not signed.
At that point, Rabbi Hermann told us that after the presentation, she was going to the Wendy’s nearby to meet the manager and anyone was free to come along. I was ecstatic! This was exactly what I had hoped for, an avenue to do something that would alleviate the suffering of tomato pickers. Even though this was a small step, I was happy to be doing something that could potentially bring about change.
After the presentation, waiting for us to start going to the Wendy’s nearby, I had mixed feelings of elation and apprehension–this was the first time I was ever going to walk into an establishment demanding to see the manager. Was he going to calmly respond to our requests or was he going to be furious and kick us out? The organizers and we students made our way to Wendy’s, picked our spokesperson who would talk to the manager about our cause in a respectable way and hand over the letter we all signed. We all walked swiftly to the cashier and demanded to see the manager who was, alas, not around. So our spokesperson explained the Fair Food Program to the cashier and briefly explained the ordeals tomato pickers have to go through. After our spokesperson handed over the letter and briefed the cashier, we all left the building with a small sense of accomplishment.
I went to the presentation because my professor urged me to go but little did I know this was going to make me completely stop eating tomatoes. I have become more aware of what goes on ‘behind the scenes’ in the production of a common ingredient in our daily food. To bring about change in the conditions and pay of the tomato pickers, we have to work together, students, Rabbis, teachers, pastors, farmers, and others…and the best time to start is now!