It is no secret that Florida’s farm workers often face unideal working environments. Cast out in the Florida heat, impenetrable humidity and unpredictable weather, workers are subject to both the elements and their employers who refuse to provide them safe work environments.
For farm workers that may have come to the United States illegally, possible deportation weighs heavily on their shoulders. For some, otherwise unable to provide for their families without the compensation promised by cheap farm labor in South Florida’s fruit farms, it is a risk they are willing to take. In 2018, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimated that roughly half of hired farmworkers do not have legal immigration status and earned an average of $13.96 per hour in 2019. With the low wages earned from bringing handpicked produce to our tables, farm workers can often hardly afford to feed themselves and their families.
Farm owners often take advantage of this unfortunate reality by immersing workers in environments leaking with toxic pesticide fumes and lacking basic amenities such as restrooms. Despite the efforts made by legislation to protect farm worker rights with labor laws such as The Fair Labor Standards Act and The National Labor Relations Act, a great majority of workers are still unable to make ends meet under atrocious conditions.
These issues are “nothing new, this is an ongoing issue for farm workers made worse by the pandemic,” said Lucy Ortiz, a local activist and outreach manager at the Center for Abused Women and Children. Ortiz said she experienced years in the fields when she moved to the United States 55 years ago after marrying a migrant farmer. “Trucks would come by and spray for pesticides. They would send everyone out, then say ‘come back’ right after,” said Ortiz. “People would get very sick.”
The United States has since enforced measures such as the United States Environmental Protection Agency’s (US EPA) 2015 Worker Protection Standard, which requires farms to educate workers on pesticide safety and minimize their exposure in order to protect worker’s rights. Yet, many still refer to farming practices as “modern day slavery” due to the exclusionary nature of labor laws that offer minimal protections workers. “Our organization hears stories every day of workers not having access to clean drinking water, shade, restrooms and exposure to pesticides because there are no regulations enforced,” said Silvia Perez of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a human-rights organization that protects rights in the workplace.
In the wake of a pandemic, the Coronavirus has only made workers’ conditions worse with many suddenly being laid off and minimal protection from the virus. Farm workers have experienced “a sudden reduction in hours,” said Claudia Gonzalez, the Homestead organizer of the Farmworker Association of Florida (FWAF). Many farm owners are offering housing to employees, cramming workers together in tight quarters with “minimal privacy and space, causing many positive COVID cases,” Ortiz added. As farm owners take minimal measures to stop the spread, the safety of those responsible for the nation’s food supply are put at risk.
Workers face great risks when they leave the farms as well, according to North Miami city clerk and immigration lawyer Vanessa Joseph. “There is the big issue of wage theft in the Homestead community,” said Joseph. Since most of the workers receive pay in cash, many encounter thieves who rob them as they depart on buses to go home. “It is a major issue, this group of people not getting paid, mistreated and abused,” Joseph said.
Organizations like Florida’s Coalition of Immokalee Workers seek to protect worker rights by requiring major corporations such as Walmart and McDonald’s to participate in the Fair Food Program (FFP). This program forces farms who work with corporations to participate in mandatory workshops in which farmers learn about their rights, resources and what to do in instances of abuse. “If a worker comes forward for abuse, there will be consequences for the abuser because big food corporations committed to FFP will suspend purchases to farms that don’t comply,” Perez said.
“Being in the position and working for food, you see from the ground up how much energy goes into harvesting,” said Mia Clarke, a junior at the University of Miami, who spent the beginning of the fall semester traveling to complete her volunteer service at two fruit farms in California. Learning about these issues and experiencing the efforts that go into cultivating crops inspired Clarke to purchase produce from small local farms. “You just walk into Whole Foods and grab whatever you want, you don’t really think about these issues,” said Clarke. You can support our local farms too; check out the Pinecrest or Coconut Grove farmers markets on Saturdays for fresh produce, eat at or grab takeout from a farm-to-table restaurant and shop at local grocers instead of chain supermarkets.
“You just walk into Whole Foods and Whole Foods and grab whatever you grab whatever you want, you don’t want, you don’t really think about really think about these issues.”these issues.”Mia Clarke | JUNIOR VOLUNTEER
That iconic metal orange imprinted on Florida license plates highlights the fruit’s status as the state’s official fruit. The orange industry’s prosperity is evident in the never-ending variety of orange juice found in every South Floridian grocery store.
Drive through Homestead and you’ll find yourself in a maze of wooden posts encased with tomato plants. Floridian farms are responsible for distributing handpicked tomatoes to a slew of fast food companies nationwide.
Cucumber plants dominate Florida farms with vines sprouting massive leaves, weaving extensively along posts. Cucumbers are one of the fastest growing vegetables and Florida ranks as one of the world’s top producers. Handpicked cucumbers serve as salad, spa and smoothie staples.
The sweeter bigger and greener cousin of Haas Avacados, Florida’s Avacado’s are a staple in many Caribbean households.
The longer these citruses remain on trees, the sweeter they grow. With varieties sporting interesting names like Ruby Red, Flame and Marsh, grapefruits thrive in our local agriculture industry.
words_anjuli sharpley. design_olivia ginsberg.
This article was published in Distraction’s winter 2020 print issue.