Matt Hackworth | February 1, 2013

The parking lot in Immakolee, Florida, where workers gather is known as the Pantry. Photo: Matt Hackworth/CWS

The parking lot in Immakolee, Florida, where workers gather is known as the Pantry. Photo: Matt Hackworth/CWS

It’s 4:30 a.m. By bike, by foot, by packed van, the men and women who work Florida’s fields queue in a dusty parking lot just for the chance to pick the produce we eat.

Drivers in beat-up former school buses squint through the dim light. They’re looking for young, able-bodied men. “Not you,” one mutters in Spanish. “Move to the side, old man.”

Picking produce in Florida’s wide, flat fields is hard work. An average worker may lift two tons of produce every day, so a busload of broad, young shoulders – male or female – are the morning’s prize for family and corporate growers alike.

CWS engages Florida’s farmworkers primarily in helping them prepare for disaster, and in advocating for immigration reform. Neither of those touches to this vulnerable community is complete without understanding what farmworkers, many undocumented, go through to feed their families. Abuse is frequent. Conditions are unsafe. In this part of Florida alone, officials have prosecuted a dozen cases of slavery.

Slavery. In Florida. And the proof may be on your plate.

The growers make money off a nation hungry for crisp produce regardless of season. But it’s a profit earned on the backs of people like Oscar Otzoy, who says the average worker earns only about 50 cents for every 32-pounds of tomatoes picked. Do the math, and it’s impossible for these workers to earn anywhere close to minimum wage slogging in the sandy grit under a hot Florida sun.

It’s an economic system built on the backs of unfair labor practices so consuming that any effort to help must begin with an understanding of the day-to-day realities farmworkers face. Understanding a vulnerable community’s needs doesn’t happen in rapid helicopter airlifts, brazen well drilling or any other, sexier humanitarian actions. Understanding requires time – time to build relationships, time to spend with a community in discerning exactly what kind of help will make the most difference.

Spending time with the farmworker community is what helped CWS find its small but very important role to play, inhelping reduce disaster risk. The bigger role – of improving working conditions and wages for farmworkers – is something each of us can do.

Matt Hackworth, Creative Manager/CWS