Tomato Pickers Expand Case for Workers’ Rights

It’s fair to say we care more than ever about the food we eat: where it comes from, who farms it, and how it was grown. But how much do we think about the people who harvested it—not the farmers, but the workers the farmers employ?

A recently-released documentary, Food Chains,  argues that we don’t think about that enough. It aims to change that with a tightly-filmed portrait of an inspiring group: the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, who fight for fair wages for Florida’s impoverished tomato pickers. In fact, they’re planning their first ever Parade and Concert for Fair Food,  traveling from Immokalee to St. Petersburg, Florida, tomorrow to raise awareness about working conditions.

Tomato pickers’ lives are brutal—long days, no benefits, an ever-present threat of sexual harassment, wages that haven’t changed in 30 years, and, by law, no ability to organize. But the CIW’s intrepid members have had remarkable success convincing major food companies to change their rules. Yum Brands, McDonald’s, Burger King, Subway, Whole Foods Market, Trader Joe’s, Chipotle and Walmart are just a few of the companies who have signed on to an agreement to pay a premium price for tomatoes in order to send a small amount more money back to workers, while also supporting growers who comply with a code of conduct toward their workers.

workers waiting to be picked up.

Courtesy Food Chains

But not all growers do, and the movie documents CIW’s attempt to change their minds, by staging a hunger strike at the corporate offices of the major chain Publix Super Markets Inc.

The film features major headliners–food activist and author Eric Schlosser and actress and actress and activist Eva Longoria. Its director, though, has never produced a feature-length film before. Sanjay Rawal has directed a few short documentaries, but most of his professional life was devoted to an agricultural genetics company that he ran with his father. In the film’s production notes, he says:

“Food Chains was inspired after I departed from a tomato conference that I was attending in place of my father. On a long drive through central Florida as farm after farm flickered past my window, hugging swampland that carried the memories of hundreds of thousands of slaves, poor black sharecroppers and now of exploited migrant Mexican farm workers, the human cost in our food system was revealed.

Eighteen-wheelers with tens of thousands of dollars of tomatoes piled into uncovered trailers rumbled past rickety buses of sweaty, tired tomato pickers. In an era where there’s more interest in food than ever before, I asked myself, Why is there such little interest in the hands that pick that food?”

Food Chains has been out since November, but next week is National Farmworker Awareness Week—so in recognition, the filmmakers have dropped the price of the film to 99 cents per viewing at foodchainsfilm.com and on iTunes.

Check out the trailer:

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Continuing the Discussion

  1. 'Harvest of Shame,' 2015 Style | The Plate

    […] But there’s been progress for tomato pickers since Estabrook’s book. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers recently secured an agreement with several major tomato buyers to pay higher prices for the fruit, with extra money going back to the pickers. […]

    November 24, 201518:40 am