Traveling museum tells of worker mistreatment


Supporters of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers attend news conference at Gainesville City Hall in this July 28 file photo.

Doug Finger/Staff photographer/file
Published: Saturday, October 1, 2011 at 8:40 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, October 1, 2011 at 8:40 p.m.

The battered truck was parked behind the building. There were gashes on the truck's inside walls, as if they had been clawed by desperate hands. Faces of hopelessness stared out from glossy photos — snapshots of bruised faces and bleeding bodies. Hung on nearby display boards were articles and written, personal accounts of the enslavement and mistreatment of farm workers.

Jordan Buckley, 29, a staff member of Interfaith Action of Southwest Florida, greeted the people milling around the display, which is the Coalition of Immokalee Workers' (CIW) traveling museum. He passed out pamphlets that promote ethical treatment and fair payment for tomato pickers in Florida.

CIW's traveling museum began its tour in this area on Saturday with a stop at the Congregation B'nai Israel synagogue. Several other stops are planned.

Visitors can see photos of, and items from, farm workers. The museum tells the stories of their historic plight against mistreatment and even enslavement. The truck is a replica of the one that Cesar and Geovanni Navarrete used to keep Florida farm workers captive. In 2008, the brothers pleaded guilty to federal charges of enslaving farm workers.

The CIW has been working to get major food companies on board with its Fair Food principles, which include fair wages for workers, a strict code of conduct, health and safety committees, and a complaint resolution system at the farms from which the companies buy tomatoes.

On Saturday, Santiago Perez, a 49-year-old farm worker, told of how he would be required to get to the fields at 5 a.m. But then he was forced to wait hours until the dew on the tomatoes would dry before he could start working. The wait time was unpaid.

"We would carry about 150 buckets of tomatoes a day at 32 or more pounds. We'd earn 50 cents a bucket," said Perez, whose Spanish was translated by Buckley.

Perez and other workers in the CIW are looking to bring occurrences of mistreatment to the attention of local police.

Most times, police don't have access to the fields and workers, Buckley said.

One story on the truck's wall tells of a boss firing a gun at vendors who tried to come onto the land.

The current target of CIW's Fair Food campaign is Publix.

"We want two things from Publix," Buckley said. "One extra cent per pound of tomatoes (which would ultimately go to the pickers), and that they only buy from farms that comply with the Fair Food principles."

Big food companies such as McDonald's, Burger King, Subway and Yum! Brands have signed on to the principles. The only major grocer to do so, at this point, is Whole Foods.

Publix has posted a statement on its corporate website that states, in part:

"We are unaware of a single instance of slavery existing in our supply chain. Publix is also unaware of a single instance of payment of less than the required minimum wage.

"Publix does not support any human rights violations and believes that our local, state and federal laws would prohibit such despicable behavior. If there are such grievances, we would direct those complaints to the appropriate local, state and federal government agencies."

The traveling museum will be in town until Wednesday. From 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. today, it will be at The Family Church, 2022 SW 122nd St. On Monday, it will be at the Plaza of the Americas on the University of Florida campus.

It will be there from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., with a presentation at the Computer Science and Engineering building, Room E222.

From 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Tuesday, it will be at Montgomery Presbyterian Conference Center, 88 SE 75th St., Starke. On Wednesday, it will be on the Santa Fe College campus all day at the main library.

Reader comments posted to this article may be published in our print edition. All rights reserved. This copyrighted material may not be re-published without permission. Links are encouraged.

▲ Return to Top