Immokalee workers receive presidential medal

ORLANDO, Fla.-The Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a Florida-based human rights organization of more than 4,000 tomato harvesters, – mostly Latino, Mayan Indian, and Haitian, many of them immigrants – received a presidential medal, Jan. 29, in recognition of its work to combat modern-day slavery among farmworkers.

The CIW also announced last month it had signed its 13th Fair Food agreement, this time with The Fresh Market, a major gourmet supermarket chain. The CIW has been battling growers, supermarkets and fast food chains for years to win Fair Food agreements on livable wages and humane working conditions.

Secretary of State John Kerry presented the coalition with the 2014 Presidential Medal for Extraordinary Efforts to Combat Trafficking in Human Persons, at a White House Forum on Combating Human Trafficking in Supply Chains, held at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in Washington.

One of the “greatest zones of impunity” for human traffickers is in supply chains in the food industry, Kerry said.

“The sources of the problem include individuals desperate for work; unscrupulous labor brokers who lie to recruit those workers; companies greedy for profits, who turn a blind eye to abuses; and customers looking to just save that extra dollar or two without regard to what the implications of those savings may be,” he said.

Kerry placed credit for improving conditions in Florida’s tomato fields squarely at the feet of the CIW.

“Those of you know Florida’s tomato sector already know about the risks of forced labor, and some farm workers in Florida are in the fields for 12 hours a day, seven days a week. They live in deplorable conditions,” he said. “They suffer beatings and sexual harassment, and many are paid hardly anything for the tomatoes that they pick.”

“But thanks to the Fair Food Program, the tomato workers in the fields do not have to face these abuses,” Kerry said.

The CIW has “organized communities, stood by tomato workers for more than 20 years, and changed the face of this industry,” he said. “They’ve pioneered a zero tolerance policy that puts workers and social responsibility at the absolute center.”

Kerry praised the group for its partnership with law enforcement to combat farm slavery operations, noting that over the last 15 years nine major investigations and federal prosecutions had freed more than 1,200 Florida farmworkers from captivity and forced labor, with the CIW playing a “key part” in seven of those investigations.

Greg Asbed, co-founder of the CIW,  told the forum that the organization is “a proven success story not just to celebrate, but to replicate, and it was designed by workers themselves, the very workers whose wages were stolen for generations, whose bodies were violated by their bosses, who were forced, by violence or the threat of violence, to work against their will.”

Photo: Catalina Ramirez and Lucas Benitez of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers hold their newly awarded presidential medal. The CIW delegation was joined at the White House forum by several of its partners in the Fair Food Program. Left to right: Jon Esformes (Operating Partner, Pacific Tomato Growers), Catalina Ramirez, Lucas Benitez, Cheryl Queen (VP, Communications, Compass Group), Laura Germino (CIW), Judge Laura Safer Espinoza (Fair Food Standards Council), and Greg Asbed (CIW).


Ben Markeson
Ben Markeson

Ben Markeson covers events in Florida for People's World. A native of Florida, Ben is an activist and a member of the Communist Party. Ben enjoys film, classical music and jazz, history, politics, comics and cats.