Food Voices: The Interviews
Oscar Otzoy, Farmer
Oscar Otzoy is a farm worker from Immokalee, Florida and is an active member of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. He is originally from Guatemala.
I arrived here in 2006. One of the reasons I came to this country was because of the extreme poverty that existed in my community. This was something I was obligated to do, although I would have preferred to continue studying. I made the decision to come here not just for myself, but for my family. I have brothers and sisters that also have this dream of going to school to have a better life, but because of the extreme poverty in Guatemala this is very difficult.
When I arrived, I worked in the fields of Immokalee with the dream of being able to help my family. Unfortunately, once you begin working in the fields, you realize the reality of the food industry. I was picking different vegetables at this time. Sweet peppers, pumpkins, things like and the wages are very backwards. Sub-poverty wages. Some of the things I confronted were working for 10 or 12 hours for a total of $50 or $60 a day. Many people feel like they are just a machine in the fields. Just a machine working. This all happens in the very, very large farms here in Immokalee. People will ask what are the different benefits of working in the field. The truth is that there are no benefits that come along with being a farm worker.
If you get sick, the company, instead of helping with the sickness, will just fire you, let you go. It is like you are an old tool. When you are broken, instead of fixing you, they just let you go. Every morning you need to go and look for work. So, you may work for the same company three or four days one week, but the next week could be completely different. And these conditions exist not just in the vegetables I mentioned earlier, but especially in tomatoes, which is the largest industry based here in Immokalee. Part of my experience as a farm worker are the long hours, the hard work and the lack of benefits. For me, it is a part of my everyday life. It is a narration of what real life for a farm worker is. But, there are far uglier, worse cases. There are more extreme and worse abuses that happen in the fields. This is a result of a lack of protections that farm workers have under the law. The worse case scenario in the agriculture industry is actually modern day slavery.
In the past 13 years, there have been nine major slavery operations uncovered in Florida and six of these, the Coalition has been a part of the discovering and investigating. I did not live through this situation, but I have seen the victims and I have had comrades that have lived through this situation of slavery. There are lack of protection and laws, so it’s not a far stretch for a crew leader or a supervisor to hold a person enslaved and whether that be through verbal threats or up to more violent threats - using guns or pistols. It is also important to keep in mind that the people held in these situations where they are forced to work against their will, it is not just people who do not have their documents, but there have been cases of people who are United States citizens or have documents or visas.
In 2007, there was a slavery situation in Palatka, Florida. The men were mostly poor African American men, citizens of the United States, who were gathered from various different cities and taken and enslaved in a farm picking fruits and vegetables. These men were held against their will and they were indebted to the people who were enslaving them. One other example, in 2008, men were held here in Immokalee in the back of a truck. They were actually chained in the back of that truck and held against their will and charged rent for this truck that they lived in, charged for the food and threatened if they tried to leave or escape. It is a very difficult situation and for this reason, we created the modern day slavery museum, which is a museum that travels in different cities and it tells the story of these most extreme abuses that are possible in the agriculture industry.
We are not just going to tell the stories of these cases, but also show people how they can help be part of the solution and call on companies that have the power to help end these abuses. We began the Campaign for Fair Food. What we did was go to companies and say these are the problems we confront every day as farm workers. This is our daily lives. We know the tomatoes we pick don’t just end in the growers’ hands, the companies that own the fields, but they continue to go up the food chain to fast food restaurants, food service providers and grocery stores. So what we were calling for is first these fast food companies would accept new rules in the agriculture industry. And, we called for a penny more per pound of tomatoes that we picked that would go right to the worker. We have a Code of Conduct with zero tolerance for slavery, and the voice of farm workers to be included in carrying out these agreements.
One reason for the penny per pound is that wages have been stagnant for about 30 years. If a farm worker were to be earning the same that he or she was earning 30 years ago and if it kept right with inflation, it would be one dollar six cents per 32-pound bucket. Now, it is about an average of 50 cents per bucket. The wage has increased slightly over the past thirty years by 5 or 10 cents, depending, but not enough to sustain the life of a worker. We ask for the penny more per pound and then the Code of Conduct with zero tolerance for slavery. With these demands, we’ve been able to bring nine major companies to the table. Also, we have been working towards the participation of the big farmers, the big ranchers. In October 2010, Pacific – one of the major growers in Florida, came and signed an agreement with the Coalition. Pacific agreed to the penny more per pound and began the process of implementing the Code of Conduct. Then, just a few weeks later came Six L’s - the largest Florida grower.
What we’ve seen is by telling the reality of the story, the reality of farm workers, especially to the world outside of Immokalee, people see that companies need to take the responsibility and that they do play a part in the conditions that farm workers confront every day. Because these nine major companies finally signed agreements with the Coalition, they were able to put pressure from above on the growers to say we want you, as growers to work with the Coalition and pass on this penny the companies are paying and also enforce the Code of Conduct. And that pressure is what ultimately brought Six L’s, Pacific and now the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange, which represents 90% of the fields.
Another really important right is the right to complain or report a complaint without fear. Before, if you complained about mistreatment or if your salary hadn’t been paid, you would simply be ignored or fired. But, now with the right to complain without fear, workers are able to go through the company or the Coalition and report these abuses and have them responded to. This is very important when it comes to sexual harassment, which is extremely prevalent in the fields. This is the change that is happening just now, present day in industrial agriculture. These changes that are happening today are vey important, but it is also important to keep in mind that with these nine companies who have agreements with the Coalition that is not enough to say that the industry has changed and certainly these are changes that are just happening now and its not perfect yet.
We have broken through various barriers, but there is still much more that we need to do. In reality, to transform industrial agriculture, it is necessary to change the supermarkets. Now, we are focusing on supermarkets like Publix, Kroger, Ahold and Walmart. These companies still haven’t decided to be part of the solution, so we are now calling on them that they also have this responsibility. It is a connection that we see. When one is eating food. And when this food is coming from situations where there is exploitation and the most extreme case, slavery, how is it someone can accept that produce as their food? It is a question for the consumer to reflect. So, consumers really have an important role to play because the tomatoes that we buy, we don’t want to come from exploitation or slavery and so seeing that consumers have this right and this power to go to companies and say I do shop here and I buy my produce here. We, as consumers, and you, as a company, have a responsibility to support the farm workers who bring food to our tables. If farm workers, growers, major companies and consumers work together, we can make a difference.
We are seeing the changes happening now for the farm workers. The workers not having to have the heap on their bucket, they are able to report abuses that are taking place. And the companies are working to resolve those problems. Workers are recognized and they know their rights and they are respected. So we see this as the beginning of a change, but certainly not sufficient for the agricultural industry. We see these as the beginning steps and we are going to continue the education and outreach in the fields, but then also putting pressure on the companies that still haven’t come to the table.
Whether it’s through means of a postcard or coming to a protest or whatever it may be, it’s the work of consumers and farm workers together that have been able to bring about the changes. We farm workers have a dream to be able to improve our lives here in this country and also improve the lives of those we know in the countries that we come from. For many years this dream of improving our lives and the lives of our families has been very hard, if not impossible to achieve, but thanks to changes taking place now, we hope that in the future, workers will be able to achieve those dreams and a lot of it is thanks to the communities that have helped support the campaign.