Voices of Struggle
They rise before the sun, find work in parking lots and ride old school buses to the fields. Then it’s squat, kneel, pick tomatoes. Fill, lift, carry heavy buckets. Row after row, bucket after bucket, hour after hour.
It’s back-breaking, low-paying, uncertain work. But every day, thousands of men and women gather in dark parking lots in Immokalee, hoping to get on a bus and toil another day.
Today, a Friday in December, 43-year-old Abundio Rios was not so lucky. Yesterday he worked tending tomato plants, but today he was told that there was no work for that company until Sunday. He sits at a picnic table in the middle of a supermarket parking lot with three other men, all farmworkers, sipping coffee. It’s about 7 a.m., and none of them found work today.
One of them, Tomas Cortez, 59, got left behind by his bus while he went to buy a coffee. Now, Cortez sits at this picnic table, hands wrapped around a white Styrofoam coffee cup, straw hat on his head.
The sun is up now, but when Rios and Cortez arrived here this morning at 5:30 a.m. it was pitch black. They come every day at that time or earlier to speak to bus drivers, crew leaders, and look for work for the day. Farms hire crew leaders to hire workers, and crew leaders hire bus drivers to pick them up. It’s a convoluted system, and workers often work for a different company each day.
“It is hard,” Rios says, in Spanish. “But you have to deal with it.” He has never done anything else. He came to the United States in 1987 and has worked in the fields ever since. Maria Hernandez, 24, agrees. She came from Mexico recently to be with her family. She says life in the fields is much more difficult than working in Mexico.
You can see the effects of the work on the workers’ hands, their faces. Their skin is weathered from the sun, fingers and hands stained and calloused. They’re bundled up, skin covered against the dirt, sun, cold, pesticide, dust—whatever they might face today. They wear long pants, long sleeves and worn sneakers or boots and hooded sweatshirts, straw hats or baseball caps to protect their heads.
This week, Rios worked four days so far, Monday through Thursday. He makes at most $70 to $80 per day, he says, when he works, but he never knows when there won’t be work for the day. Days off aren’t planned. They come when the buses depart and he is left behind.
At 5 a.m. in most places in Southwest Florida, the world is asleep. Supermarkets closed, streets empty, store windows dark. You can’t get a latte at Starbucks or groceries at Publix. Only the 24-hour gas stations and pharmacies are open.
In Immokalee, it’s different. The town is awake in the dark, early morning hours. Drive down Main Street and you’ll see people walking and biking to work, moms walking kids to daycare or school, lights on in bakeries, customers leaving supermarkets and crowds gathering in parking lots.
Turn left off Main onto South Second Street and, if you’ve never seen it before, you’ll be amazed at the scene. There’s a supermarket, called “La Fiesta #3,” and in the parking lot in front of it there are hundreds, sometimes thousands, of people gathering under flickering street lights. Old school buses idle in parking spots while men and women go up to the doors, speak to the drivers and arrange for work.
The parking lot spans a block, with four long rows of parking spaces. Up and down the rows of buses, workers wait in line, chat and get ready to go to work. Streetlights cast streams of light on the ground. Bus engines rumble. Every once in awhile, a loaded bus backs up, pulls out and drives away.
The doors of the supermarket open and close constantly, as customers go in and out, carrying white Styrofoam coffee cups, foil-wrapped plates with tacos, plastic bags with drinks and snacks.
In the late afternoon and evening there will be another flurry when the workers come home. Then tomorrow morning it’ll start again, and they’ll be back, before the sun rises.
Wilson Perez came to the United States from Guatemala when he was 16 years old. He had friends who had already made the trip, and he wanted to work, to send money back to his family. Perez started in North Carolina, picking tomatoes, and then followed word of work and ended up in Michigan, picking blueberries and apples.
“There are just people who know where there is work,” he says in Spanish. “It’s seasonal. When one season ends in North Carolina everyone goes to Michigan, and then when it starts to snow up there, they all come down here to Florida.”
They start putting plastic on the tomato fields in Southwest Florida in September, Perez says. He arrived then, at the beginning of the season when he was 17, and he remembers turning 18 years old in March in Immokalee. Up until last year, Perez worked in the fields.
This year, he is working for the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, doing outreach about the organization’s Fair Food agreements. Founded in 1993, the organization is most famous for its campaign for Fair Food, which has signed agreements with tomato purchasers in the fast food, service and grocery industries, as well as the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange.
Under the agreement, workers are paid a penny more per pound of tomatoes that they pick, time clocks are required and companies are not allowed to require overfilling of tomato buckets or “topping off.” Additionally, a health and safety committee is established, along with a complaint resolution system and more education.
The group’s first agreement was with Taco Bell in 2005, then followed by McDonalds, Burger King and other fast food companies. Other agreements have included food service. Now the organization is setting its sights on the grocery industry. They’ve signed an agreement with Whole Foods and are putting pressure on Publix and Trader Joe’s.
In the past, despite agreements between tomato purchasers and the organization, many of the benefits—including the penny more per pound—were not passed along to the workers due to resistance from the Florida Tomato Growers’ Exchange. But in 2010, in what they call a “watershed moment,” two of the largest growers—Pacific and Six L’s—signed an agreement, followed shortly after by the exchange.
According to the group, this agreement brought 90 percent of the Florida tomato industry under the umbrella of Fair Food.
Perez speaks about his life and his work for the Coalition of Immokalee Workers on a Friday afternoon, sitting out back behind the organization’s headquarters. There is a small vegetable garden back here, and he explains how picking tomatoes works, motioning to the rows of plants.
Workers are assigned to rows in the fields, he explains, and they move along them on their knees, separating plants, picking and filling up buckets.
About 31,500 acres in Florida are cultivated for fresh tomatoes, according to the Florida Tomato Committee. More than 1.1 billion pounds are shipped throughout the United States, Canada and abroad, and more than 33,000 workers hand pick that fruit.
Filled, each bucket that a farmworker carries weighs about 32 pounds under the Coalition’s new standards, Perez explains. The new standards prohibit the requirement of “topping off,” or making the top of the bucket piled with tomatoes like a rounded snow cone. With topping off, each bucket weighs more like 36 pounds.
“With the new agreements it’s a new day for farmworkers,” he says.
When the bucket is full, the workers heft the 32 pounds onto their shoulders and carry it to a truck for inspection and dumping. There, they get a ticket, empty the bucket and repeat the process. Each bucket is worth about $0.50. At that rate, when a worker picks 130 buckets, he or she gets $65 for picking 4,160 pounds of tomatoes.
A penny more per pound doesn’t sound like much, but it makes a difference, says Perez. For that average bucket that weighs 32 pounds it means $0.32 more cents per bucket, or, for 130 buckets in one day, $41.60 extra. That extra money shows up as a bonus on the worker’s check.
At the end of the day, the tickets are counted, and that’s how the workers get paid, he explains. If they pick less than the amount to make minimum wage, or they worked on something else that day that wasn’t paid by the piece, the farm is required to pay them minimum wage.
According to the Department of Labor’s National Agricultural Workers Survey in 2005, an average farmworker’s salary was between $10,000 and $12,499 and the household income, between $15,000 and $17,499.
“When you come, they don’t tell you the reality of the work,” says Silvia Perez, 39, in Spanish, who works along with Wilson Perez at the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. Though they have the same last name, they are not related. “I think if they told the truth people wouldn’t come.”
She came to the United States from Guatemala when she was 19. Poverty and lack of work drove her to leave. The people she came with brought her to Immokalee, and she started by planting peppers and then picking tomatoes in the second, spring harvest.
“The work is the same for women and men,” she says. “It’s difficult work, and it’s different than harvesting work in Guatemala, where they harvest corn, beans, potatoes. Here it’s more difficult because here you have to push to earn your minimum salary.”
Only 20 percent of workers are women, she says. When there’s a lot of work the crew leaders pick up both men and women, but when there is less work, they favor the men, she says. Women are always at risk for sexual harassment.
Even worse are nightmarish stories of crew leaders locking men and women in trailers, beating them, forcing them to work for little or no pay, sexual abuse and more. Nine cases of human slavery have been brought to court in Florida since 2010.
As wilson and silvia perez speak about the harsh realities of life as a farmworker, the people they’re talking about are arriving home from their day of work. Bus after bus pulls into the town, coming from the fields, unloading people.
Some of the farms they’re returning from are as close as 10 or 15 minutes away. Others are as far away as two hours. Wilson Perez remembers riding to Palmetto, which is near Bradenton, last year each day for an entire month.
As anxious as the workers are to get home, they don’t leave the parking lot right away today. It’s Friday, payday, and those who did not get their checks at the farms form long, snaking lines in front of the driver side of different trucks around the parking lot.
They’re not official trucks, just pickup trucks of all kinds and colors. These men are the crew leaders, and they have lists of names and checks, which they hand out their windows.
Lidia Juarez, 21, waits in one line next to a pickup. She is from Guatemala, she says, and she came here about four years ago. She’s been working in the field since then. Last week, it was picking tomatoes. This week, planting.
She’s wearing a red hooded sweatshirt, sneakers and jeans. Her dark brown, almost black hair is braided and comes out the back of her bright yellow hat. It’s cold out, and her shoulders hunch, hands in sweatshirt pockets.
This morning she arrived at the parking lot at 6 a.m., left on a bus and rode about 45 minutes to the fields. She got back around 4:30 p.m. In Guatemala, there was little work, and what there was paid worse than this, she says. That’s why she came.
A few minutes in line and she’s up at the window. She gives the man her name; he looks at his list and he doesn’t find her. He doesn’t have her check. “Who does?” she asks in Spanish. He shrugs.
She steps aside, confused. She asks some people and one points to another long line beside another truck. She walks over there and gets in line.
Through the line and up to the window again. This time, when she says her name the man in the driver’s seat looks at the list and finds her, hands her a check.
“Be sure to check it, make sure it’s the right amount,” says the man standing behind her in line, speaking in Spanish. He sees her nervousness about getting her check. His name is Gilberto Hernandez. Sometimes they’ll make mistakes and not pay you the right amount, says Hernandez, 39. Maybe they’ll pay you for six hours instead of seven, or one day instead of two. He always double checks, he says.
Hernandez has been working as a farmworker for about 13 years. He’s from Mexico originally, and usually he travels with the crops up to North Carolina.
It’s his turn next to pick up his check. He gets it and immediately opens it to inspect the amount. On that day, Wednesday this week, he worked by the hour, getting paid $7.31, minimum wage, for six hours of work. That’s $43.86. Then he got paid a bonus of 10 cents per bucket, and he picked 150 buckets, so the bonus is $15. Taxes take some out, so in the end, he made $55.54 that day.
He picked 150 buckets in 6 hours, which is 25 buckets an hour, or a bucket every 2.4 minutes. That’s 4,800 pounds of tomatoes.
“You have no idea how hard it is to pick a bucket of tomatoes,” he says. “It’s very heavy, it’s very difficult, and there’s a lot of spray. It affects your lungs. Today my throat is hurting from the spray.”
By spray, he means pesticides, which are sprayed on the crops and turn into a dust that the workers get on their hands, faces and bodies as they pick. It lifts off the leaves as they move them aside to pick the tomatoes, and the workers breath it in.
When his wife was pregnant with their third child, now four years old, they were told there might be something wrong with him, he says. They were concerned that the pesticides might have affected their child. But when he was born, he was fine.
Today Hernandez thought he’d pick up more checks, but after he gets this one he looks around the parking lot and most of the crew leaders are gone. It’s not a big deal, he says, he’ll pick them up tomorrow.
Each day is paid in a separate check, and sometimes workers work for multiple companies in a week, so payday can be confusing. How much they make per week depends on how many days worked, how many hours per day.
When work is available, workers make about $300 per week, Silvia Perez says. Workers collecting paychecks in the parking lot said they made anywhere from $180 to $380 this particular week in December.
Daniel and Maria Barrios wait beside the same truck with their daughter Estefania, five. Daniel and Maria are 34 and 32 years old, and they live in Immokalee year round. Maria Barrios has been working in the fields for 11 years, she says. This week, she worked four days and got paid about $200. Her husband worked five days and made $320.
“Young people, they should study and work hard so that they can do another kind of work,” she says. “It’s hard to find work, and it’s hard work.”
Now, finally, it’s time to go home.
Maria Barrios is not much in the mood for talking, she says after she picks up her paycheck. She just wants to get paid and go home. They have four children, including Estefania, and now she’ll go home and care for them after hours of “running and picking.”
Dinner and laundry and cleaning and homework and then up in the morning to do it all again.
Hernandez, the worker whose throat is sore from pesticides, folds his check for $55.54 into his wallet, puts in back in his pocket and gets ready to head home to his wife and three kids. They live nearby in a trailer in a neighborhood called “La Rata,” or the rat.
At the end of May, Hernandez plans to travel north for work. Ideally, his family would stay here in Immokalee so the kids could finish the school year. But this year, he’s probably going to have to bring them with him as he travels with the crop, he says. He doesn’t have enough money to pay for them to stay, and if they go, there are assistance programs that will help with free food at school.
They will drive, though he doesn’t have a license. He tries not to drive too often, but it’s hard, he says. This parking lot where he comes every morning is 20 minutes by bicycle from their home. He got pulled over once and put into jail for driving with no license, but they did not deport him because he has no record. Bail cost him $500.
Cortez, the man whose ride left him while he got coffee, also lives nearby. His home is a rented room in an apartment, which he shares with another family. He has children, but they live in Pennsylvania and California. He pays $200 a month for a room, he says. It’s not hard to find places to live, he says, but it can be expensive.
Rios, who sat at the table with Cortez, says that things are changing little for farmworkers because of the Coalition’s new agreements. He has been involved in the organization for years, and he is one of a handful of workers who participated in a hunger strike that drew national attention in 1998. He didn’t eat for 30 days.
He and his wife Maria have two boys, ages 12 and five, and a daughter, just 10 months. Her photo is the background image on his cell phone. Maria used to work in the fields, but he is happy that she no longer does. It’s harder on women than men, he says. They live in an apartment nearby, and food stamps help them get by.
Rios doesn’t speak English, and he doesn’t know how to read or write in Spanish.
“I don’t want my children to work in the fields,” Rios says. “I want them to study so they’re not ignorant like me, not knowing how to read and only working in the fields.”
It’s a sentiment that comes up often among farmworkers, unprompted. They are doing this work to support themselves and their families. While it puts food on the table, it’s a very hard life. They are mothers and fathers and they want the best for their children. This job, is not that.
“We are used to it,” says Cortez, who has been working around Immokalee for more than 30 years. “For us, it’s normal, because we haven’t ever done anything but work in the fields.”
Rios nods. “You just have to endure it,” he says.