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June 26th, 2014 By Nick Swartsell | News | Posted In: Labor Unions

Group Asks Kroger to Support Farm Workers

Coalition for Immokalee Workers pushes for higher wages, better treatment

Oscar Otzoy, center left, stands with fellow protesters outside a Kroger shareholder meeting at Music Hall
Nick Swartsell

 A national group working to convince companies to change the way they buy produce picketed Kroger's annual shareholder meeting Thursday.

About 100 activists showed up, holding signs and chanting as shareholders filed into the meeting at Music Hall. Some were local, while others came from Columbus, Florida and elsewhere.

The group organizing the event, Coalition of Immokalee Workers, is based in Immokalee, Fla., and pushes for higher wages and improved working conditions for farm laborers. A large amount of produce production takes place in Florida and throughout the South, and the industry is rife with complaints of worker exploitation and mistreatment.

Hundreds of thousands of farm workers labor in Florida, and many make just pennies per pound picked, meaning it can take picking a couple tons a day to make a living wage. That’s if they make any money at all. Florida has prosecuted a number of cases of slave labor in the agricultural industry in the past decade and a half, leading to the discovery of more than 1,000 people being exploited for unpaid slave labor.

The adverse conditions affect people of color disproportionately. A study by the Center for Racial Justice Innovation found that 50 percent of low-wage workers in the food industry are people of color, and that 65 percent of low-wage farm workers are Hispanic.

CIW started in 1993 as a small, local coalition working to improve these conditions, specifically working with tomato pickers.

The group began near the city of Immokalee in southwest Florida, known as “the tomato capital of the world.” The organization had big success pushing for higher wages and better treatment and has grown to become a national-level organizing group for workers.


Oscar Otzoy picks produce and advocates for farm labor rights. He’s working in Columbus now but lived in Immokalee for eight years before that. He's been involved in the coalition to improve farm workers’ rights that entire time.

He says before the coalition, working days in the fields were long, and workers had little recourse when they were mistreated.

“Back then, you’d work long, hard hours, and if you were abused in the fields, if you were a victim of sexual harassment, as many women are, there was no system,” he said. “If workers wanted to complain, they would be fired on the spot. That’s all changing now.”

Otzoy says the life of a farm laborer can be hard, especially without groups like the CIW.

“You wake up very early in the morning, usually about 4 a.m., and then get on a bus to the field to work,” said Otzoy, describing a typical day before he joined the coalition. “But when you get there, you usually don’t start working until about 10 a.m., when the pesticides have dried and it’s safe to enter. All the time in between is unpaid.”


Protesters picket as Kroger shareholders enter Music Hall
Nick Swartsell
The CIW’s Fair Food Program, an effort to address some of the hardships of work in the produce industry, pushes for an extra cent per pound paid to workers, supports a code of conduct for companies and educates workers about their rights. CIW says the Fair Food Program has resulted in $12 million in extra pay for workers since it was first instituted.

McDonalds, Burger King, Taco Bell, Subway, Chipotle, Trader Joes, Whole Foods and Wal Mart, among other large companies responsible for billions of dollars in the produce trade, have all participated in the Fair Food Program. Some staunch holdouts include Wendy’s and Publix, a Southern grocery store chain.

Kroger is another company that has yet to join in.

“We’ve been here every year, and we’re trying to grow our numbers,” said Sameerah Ahmad, a local organizer working with CIW at the protest. “We’ve been organizing these protests for a few years. We want to show escalation and pressure and show we’re not going way.

Kroger is the nation’s largest grocer after Wal-Mart, with total sales of more than $34 billion. The chain has not yet responded to calls to join fair food efforts. While the company itself hasn’t participated directly in any known agricultural injustices, Ahmad said that as part of the produce industry, the company should make sure it’s sourcing its food ethically.

“Kroger can take a big step by supporting workers’ rights in the fields,” she said.

 
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