A penny more per pound How farm workers in Florida are putting an end to sexual assault and other workplace abuses

By Rebecca Burton

Photos courtesy of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and the Fair Food Standards Council

Not long ago, ground zero for inhumane working conditions was the tomato fields of Florida.

In a town called Immokalee, among the rural farmlands of southwest Florida, a small group of migrant farm workers ignited a movement to end modern-day slavery in the nation's agricultural fields.

While 90 percent of the nation's winter tomatoes are grown right here in the Sunshine State, purchasing from Florida farms is inevitable for major corporate buyers like Taco Bell and Wal-Mart.

An Ignited Immokalee

On one muggy summer day in the early 90s, a farm boss beat a man for taking a sip of water. This was the spark that ignited the first resistance from workers in Immokalee. They launched their first strike. It was short-lived, but initiated the beginning of the end of the fierce abuse of some of our nation's most vulnerable people.

For more than two decades migrant workers mostly from Mexico, Guatemala and Haiti have been planning out and perfecting a system to end assault, sexual harassment, forced labor, wage theft and in the most extreme cases, human trafficking. A system that includes workplace education, a complaint line, a solid monitoring program and fierce market consequences.

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers believes its model can put an end to workplace abuse in any workplace environment, including the entertainment industry.

One of the most prevalent problems the Coalition has been fighting is sexual abuse. Eighty percent of women farm workers face some form of sexual harassment and assault compared to the national average of 25 percent.

Hey, Hollywood

Women in Hollywood have recently launched the Times Up Now initiative to end sexual harassment and assault in every workplace. Their campaign includes a $13 million legal defense fund for women in blue-collar jobs and farm work to help protect them from fear of retaliation when reporting an abuse.

"The struggle for women to break in, to rise up the ranks and to simply be heard and acknowledged in male-dominated workplaces must end; time's up on this impenetrable monopoly," says an open letter signed by the likes of Natalie Portman, Kerry Walsh and Reese Witherspoon.

But the Times Up Now movement shouldn't shy away from listening to the members of the Coalition. They have solid advice based on years of experience about how to get from the often traumatizing prosecution stage to the prevention stage.

"This just doesn't just help out farm workers in Florida," said Julia de la Cruz , a Coalition staff member who has worked in the fields of Immokalee for about 10 years. Her interview was conducted in Spanish and translated by an interpreter.

"But it has the potential to affect workers in many different industries, in many different places to really make those conditions that they're facing even better,” she said.

slavery in florida's fields nothing new

In the late 1800s slavery was considered “the backbone of Florida’s economy.”

The long and brutal past of Florida agriculture includes a constant stream of money and labor to grow some of the nation's important crops.

During the first 200 years of Spanish control in North America, colonial authorities in St. Augustine launched a labor draft system in which indigenous men planted and harvested corn crucial to the colony's survival.


By 1763, when Great Britain gained control of Florida, emigrant planters in the Southeast began to develop large-scale commercial farms. Enslaved Africans and their descendants were the overworked engines contributing to the well-oiled machine of American agriculture.


In 1821, Florida officially joined the Union. By this time, slaveholders were importing more and more enslaved people to Florida to meet the nation's growing need for cotton and sugar.

It was in these fields that a new form of slavery surfaced, known as "pushing," in which transitory planters raised production requirements to maximize their wealth. This forced workers to work even faster, harder and endure more workplace abuse than ever.


By 1860, nearly 44 percent of the state's population was enslaved. Human beings were considered property that comprised “the backbone of Florida’s economy.”


The emancipation proclamation was signed by President Abraham Lincoln on January 1, 1863. But the agriculture industry still wanted the monetary advantages that came with a low-wage and vulnerable workforce. Threat and violence in the fields ensued.


During this time, more black Floridians were lynched than anyone else. These hangings were often linked to labor disputes.

Jim Crow laws tightened and forced labor persisted. African American men were often arrested on minor vagrancy charges and forced to work in labor camps run by the phosphate, agriculture and forest industries.

This convict-lease system subsequently drove down wages for free workers, who had to compete with convicts forced to work. Florida abolished the convict-lease system in 1923, but was one of the last states to do so.

Forms of servitude in the farms could be somewhat sneaky. In the 20th century, employers provided a mandatory "company store" by which workers were forced to pay rent, and buy food, wine, beer and cigarettes at inflated prices. The workers often racked up a debt they couldn't pay and therefore a workplace they couldn't escape.


In 1935, farm workers were excluded from protections provided by the New Deal like the right to a minimum wage, overtime pay and collective bargaining. Farm workers were once again, powerless to make a change in the cold and rigid system.

Labor conditions in the farms of the U.S. largely remained "out of sight, out of mind" throughout the years. Conditions continued to sour. Photo by state of florida archives

harvest of shame

On the day after Thanksgiving in 1960, millions of Americans were given an inside look into the horrible conditions farm workers were facing.

On their television screens, journalist Edward R. Murrow storied the lives of migrant workers who traveled from farm to farm, season to season and crop to crop without a hope of ever achieving "the American Dream."

"This scene is not taking place in the Congo. It has nothing to do with Johannesburg or Cape Town. It is not Nyasaland or Nigeria. This is Florida. These are citizens of the United States, 1960," said Murrow in the opening of the film.

"This is a shape-up for migrant workers. The hawkers are chanting the going piece rate at the various fields. This is the way the humans who harvest the food for the best-fed people in the world get hired. One farmer looked at this and said, 'We used to own our slaves; now we just rent them.'"

While this film did spark empathy for the workers, more than 50 years later, the same problems persist.

"Often, you come here, as in my case, alone. You don't know anyone else. Nobody is talking to you about what your rights are," de la Cruz said. "You don't know what your rights are. You just are dedicated to work. You work hard and that's all."

a worker-driven movement

The Coalition's first attempts at changing an abusive system included short-lived strikes and protests. But for many workers, withholding from work for any significant amount of time was impossible. To really make an impact, they needed a clever strategy.

For many years, complaining about and protesting the growers was unsuccessful. The Coalition needed to instead put pressure on the stop of the supply chain. Large corporations like Taco Bell and Wal-Mart.

They believed that since these corporations were demanding even lower prices for tomatoes and other vegetables, growers were also forced to cut corners. This ultimately led to deteriorating working conditions for the farm workers.

The Coalition knew it needed a solid backer. It needed angry consumers. Enter: an increasing population of food-conscious individuals.

In 2011, the Coalition launched its Fair Food Program. Their first campaign focused on one of the tomato industry's biggest buyers: Taco Bell.

Armed with "Taco Bell Makes Farmworkers Poor" signs, they started gaining the attention of consumers.

The program is simple: large corporate buyers that sign onto the Fair Foods Program must pay a penny more per pound, which is then distributed to the workers in the form of a line item “bonus” on their paycheck. A strategy that Coalition says helps prevent low and stagnant wages.

From 2011 to 2015, more than $16 million in Fair Food premiums were paid into the program.

The buyers who sign onto the program can contractually only buy from farms that deploy a Fair Foods Program Code of Conduct, which has strict consequences for sexual assault, wage theft and force labor. The code of conduct also calls for safe working conditions – like how growers must provide water and shade on the fields—both of which are not required by law.

“Once we move past exposing the problem and surfacing the abuses and the abusers, we have to think about ways to get beyond that,” said Judge Laura Espinoza, the executive director of the Fair Foods Standards Council, the monitoring arm of the Fair Foods Program.

One of the reasons the program has worked is because the workers themselves, as opposed to an outside agency, drafted the Code of Conduct.

The reason is because only workers know the abuse they face and the subtle ways growers have stolen wages.

One example is the requirement of workers to "cup" their buckets of tomatoes, or pile their tomatoes past the rim, resembling an ice cream cone. Failure to cup meant you lost credit for the entire bucket.

When filled to the rim, tomato buckets add up to about 32 pounds. When cupped, about 36 pounds. For every 10 buckets, workers were actually picking 11 buckets worth. Discreet wage theft.

Photo from the "Know Your Rights and Responsibilities" education booklet given out at farms participating in the Fair Foods Program.

When crafting the Code of Conduct, workers added in a photo of the correct way to fill a bucket and their right to complain if forced to cup.

worker-driven education

On farms participating in the Fair Food Program, workers are required to attend a class once a season detailing their rights and what constitutes abuse. The class is taught by other workers, attended by company supervisors, and takes place on company property and on the company's dime.

During the class, workers also learn how to report abuse to the 24/7 complaint line which is run by the Fair Foods Standards Council.

De la Cruz has had to use the complaint line many times. At first she was nervous. Who can blame her? The system had never been in her favor.

But once she learned her rights, she knew she needed to speak up when something went wrong.

"That's the only way to make things change," she said.

“With fair food program, that's something that you don't have to worry about because you now know your rights. You are seen as a human being and so you trust that there's something to be done.”

When a farm signs onto the Fair Food program, it allows workers from the Coalition to talk to the workers on that farm about their rights. Workers on Fair Food Farms today have the ability to report abuse without the fear of retaliation.

“So that is really your first opportunity as a worker to hear about what your rights are. To actually have someone concerned with the problems that your facing in the fields," de la Cruz said.

"That makes a huge difference because suddenly you're not just seen as a machine, but as a real person."

However, the agriculture industry is vast, and there is much work to be done. De la Cruz said it isn't uncommon for a migrant worker to spend one season on a farm in the Fair Foods Program and the next on a farm with harsh working conditions.

But, she said once workers learn their rights, they don't forget them.

“You don’t leave that knowledge behind. You take it with you.”

a local watchdog

Once a report is made to the complaint line, a Florida-based auditor from the Fair Foods Standards Council visits the farm in question and drafts a corrective action plan.

The Fair Foods Standards Council conducts audits at all participating farms at least once every harvest season. Most of the auditors, who are full-time employees of the Sarasota-based non-profit monitoring organization, return to the same farm again and again, building a trusting relationship with the workers. Their time spent on the farm increases their privy to abuse.

If a grower violates the code of conduct and fails to correct those non-compliances—big buyers in the program are contractually not allowed to buy from that farm.

The Fair Food Code of Conduct also has zero tolerance for offenses such as forced labor and child labor. This means if these violations are surfaced, the grower is automatically suspended from the program.

"Additionally, in cases of violence, including sexual assault, if the perpetrators are not fired, the grower is suspended from the program, thereby losing the right to sell to participating buyers," Judge Espinoza said.

Judge Espinoza has been executive director of the Fair Foods Standards Council since 2011. She said her work has been focused on establishing and streamlining effective auditing and complaint resolutions procedures.

Before moving to Florida, Espinoza directed a courtroom in New York for more than 20 years.

Half of her judicial career was spent in what was known as "the problem solving courts," or Treatment Courts, which provided alternatives to incarceration for non-violent offenders.

Like many New Yorkers, she retired to the Sunshine State. She wanted to put her career's worth of skills to use. Her plan was to volunteer a couple of hours a week with various organizations, including the Coalition.

She wished to be the investigator she was in her youth. Uncover injustice. Prosecute abusers.

Her volunteerism quickly turned to a full-time job.

By the time Espinoza signed on, agreements between farm workers, growers and buyers had already been established. She says her main role as director of the Fair Foods Standards Council was to help design and execute monitoring procedures to uncover and eliminate violations of the code of conduct. Her ultimate goal was to achieve systemic change and improve the ability of participating growers to prevent abuse.

Espinoza says the Sarasota-based auditing agency wouldn't be as effective as it is now if it weren't for it being embedded in the state. Close to the farms in the program.

She directs a full-time staff who have established rapport with workers. They know what issues to keep an eye on depending on the farm. They speak the workers' language.

“Lo and behold, through the implementation of the program's code of conduct, the practice of sexual assault has virtually disappeared from these farms," Espinoza said. "And should anything happen, it would be immediately surfaced. Like when you have a really beautiful garden and one weed sticks out. You can just clip it at the root.”

The auditors serve as the voice for workers. They know exactly what to do when a complaint is made in order to resolve those issues.

Their solutions involve collaboration and cooperation with the participating growers. If the growers refuse to cooperate, the program illicits strict market consequences to stop money from flowing in. To hit violators where it hurts the most. Their pocketbooks.

hit 'em where it hurts

Until consumers started putting pressure on corporations to only source vegetables from farms with humane working conditions, abuse remained rampant.

Staple vegetables like fresh tomatoes, peppers, zucchini and squash are grown and shipped around the U.S. from South Florida.

"The working conditions here were ignored for years. But when people started becoming interested in those conditions and interested in hearing workers voices, that is when change was able to be made,” de la cruz said.

Espinoza said the elements of the program: worker-driven education, constant and independent monitoring, including the 24/7 complaint line can only be successful when there are swift and effective market consequences.

"I believe that some of the change is brought about by goodwill," she said. "But for the most part for the most part, until people can feel that their economic interest is at stake, you're just not going to get the kind of investment that is needed to make truly transformational change."

Today 14 major buyers and growers in seven different states have signed onto the program, mostly in the tomato industry, but recently a few in the strawberry and bell pepper industries.

But, this still represents only a sliver of the agriculture sector. For 2018, the Coalition is hoping to add to their growing list of corporate buyers. Including the some of the most stubborn. Yeah, Publix, we're looking at you.

hey, publix

While there are tons of corporate buyers who have yet to sign on to the Fair Foods Program, of note is one of Florida's staple supermarkets, which boasts the slogan, "Where Shopping is a Pleasure."

While most Floridians who have ever taken a bite out of a fresh Pub Sub might agree with the slogan, the popular supermarket chain's argument against signing on to a human rights agreement is questionable.

Publix says it is not its place to interfere with labor disputes.

"A labor dispute is defined as a controversy between an employer and its employees concerning the terms or conditions of employment. This includes, but isn’t limited to, wages (including bonuses), benefits, breaks and other working conditions," reads their corporate website.

But, if something is systemic--existing across an entire industry for centuries, even after a shocking documentary the day after Thanksgiving-- is it considered a mere dispute between employers and employees?

The Coalition's stance is that massive retail food chains were leveraging their large purchasing ability to demand lower prices from tomato suppliers. That pressure on prices was endured by the farm workers.

"This new analysis placed responsibility for farmworker poverty and abuse not only at the feet of the farm bosses and growers whom the CIW had been battling for a decade, but also squarely within the corporate suites of major food retailers," states a recent article by the Coalition which appeared in the Wake Forest Law Review.

Publix maintains that it is the employers' responsibility to ensure safe working conditions for workers. They say, if this costs more, simply put it in the price and they will gladly pay it.

"We believe it is the responsibility of all our suppliers — including Florida farmers who grow tomatoes and other produce — to manage their own workforce, including paying wages and providing work conditions that comply with federal and state laws."

Publix also says it has worked with the Food Marketing Institute, a food industry organization, to affect change for farm workers. According to the website, FMI has taken concerns to the Department of Labor, which has the responsibility to monitor and enforce the governing laws on farms, which include wages and working conditions.

But, a lawsuit filed against one of Publix's tomato suppliers proves otherwise. The US Department of Labor charged Red Diamond farms with willfully disobeying federal labor laws and exploiting vulnerable, low-wage workers. Publix continued to buy from Red Diamond Farms as these abuses were taking place.

"Maybe the government should get involved," said a Publix spokesperson when responding to the lawsuit.

But Espinoza says it's not that simple. In fact, migrant workers in Florida have little protection under the law.

“It is not required by the law to have shade in the field. It is not required by the law to record workers’ hours with a time registration device that they control, even though that is the one certain way that you can ensure against wage theft," Espinoza said.

"Manual records are so easily manipulated that DOL acknowledges that it is the primary source of wage theft. So there are just a lot of answers that don't hold up under any kind of informed scrutiny," she said.

She also said that the program is disengaged from any legal or governmental system by design. Administrations change, governing laws change, government enforcement agencies are under-resourced, but the market for staple foods like vegetables are constant, she said.

Although Publix has yet to sit down and meet with the Coalition in person, workers are remaining confident that with consumers help, they can get Publix to "just pay the penny."

"And yes, we agree it's very unfortunate that Publix is not in the program. . .yet. Because we believe some day they will be,” Espinoza said.


In 2018, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers hopes to expand its program, with big buyers Kroger, Publix and Wendy's at the top of its list. The also hope to add more crops, states and even industries to sign on.

One of the most recent success stories of this market-based model was won by dairy workers in Vermont. The dairy workers' organization Migrant Justice modeled its Milk with Dignity program after the Coalition's Fair Food Program. Their first major buyer to sign on? Ben and Jerry's.

in solidarity

Reports of sexual harassment in Hollywood are helping elevate the struggles farm worker women have endured for centuries.

“Because we women in the fields have suffered for many years and know now that there's something that should be different," de la Cruz said. "These are the rights that we want and that we deserve.”

Espinoza said that she hopes every industry can work toward preventing sexual assault and other workplace abuses altogether.

“People are hungry for solutions and for that reason women who are in much less vulnerable positions than farm workers have been looking at the systemic solutions that are provided by the Fair Food program to this problem," Espinoza said.

In a letter to the women leading the Hollywood movement, 700,000 farm workers say they stand with the women who have "come forward to speak out about the gender based violence they’ve experienced at the hands of bosses, coworkers and other powerful people in the entertainment industry.

Sadly, we’re not surprised because it’s a reality we know far too well. Countless farmworker women across our country suffer in silence because of the widespread sexual harassment and assault that they face at work. We do not work under bright stage lights or on the big screen.

We work in the shadows of society in isolated fields and packinghouses that are out of sight and out of mind for most people in this country. Your job feeds souls, fills hearts and spreads joy. Our job nourishes the nation with the fruits, vegetables and other crops that we plant, pick and pack.

Even though we work in very different environments, we share a common experience of being preyed upon by individuals who have the power to hire, fire, blacklist and otherwise threaten our economic, physical and emotional security.

Like you, there are few positions available to us and reporting any kind of harm or injustice committed against us doesn’t seem like a viable option. Complaining about anything — even sexual harassment — seems unthinkable because too much is at risk, including the ability to feed our families and preserve our reputations.

In these moments of despair, and as you cope with scrutiny and criticism because you have bravely chosen to speak out against the harrowing acts that were committed against you, please know that you’re not alone. We believe and stand with you," the November 2017 letter reads.

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers has been considered by the Washington Post to be one of the great human rights success stories of our day. It's time every workplace administrator sits back and takes notes.

In one of the most difficult environments for this to have been implemented, systemic change was made.

"This wasn't something that we started asking for just yesterday but the pain and the struggle of the coalition has been more than 20 years in the making," de la Cruz said.

To learn more, visit:

Coalition of Immokalee Workers: http://www.ciw-online.org/

Fair Food Program: http://www.fairfoodprogram.org/

Fair Foods Standards Council: http://www.fairfoodstandards.org/

References: A large amount of data in this story was pulled from a report by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers published in the Wake Forest Law Review.

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Rebecca Burton

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