Posted on Wed, Dec. 10, 2003

story:PUB_DESC

 

'We are treated like animals'
Migrant farmworker recalls atrocities in fields

Herald Staff Writer

 

BRADENTON - It's 3 a.m. and camps of migrant farmworkers pack their lunches before a crammed car ride

from Immokalee to Palmetto - one that will caravan them home again by 10 p.m.


If they scramble to pick and haul two tons of tomatoes, they might earn $50.

This is if vertigo or lightning doesn't strike first.
 

This was not the American dream Francisca Cortez envisioned.
The 21-year-old Mexican immigrant has been picking tomatoes since age 8,

and though she makes nearly 10 times more than she did in her home country,

it is still far below the poverty line.
 

"When I came here in the beginning, it was kind of a shock," Cortez said. "I thought,

'This is what's so good about the United States, you just keep working and working

and you never make any money?' "


A group of about 20 people at Fogartyville Cafe listened Tuesday night to her saga,

translated by Brian Payne, a representative of the Student Farmworker

Alliance from the University of Florida.
 

Cortez works for the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a 2,000- to 2,500-member organization,

and for their radio station. She labors in the fields still, follows the growing season

in Florida from November to May and up North on the off-months.

She said she witnesses atrocities transpiring almost every day.
 

"The reality is when we work, we are treated like animals. We're wasting our lives away in the fields," Cortez said.
Farmworkers banded together against what they contend to be common abuse by contractors and poor wages.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the average farmworker makes between $7,500 and $8,000 a year.
For every 32-pound bucket of tomatoes they pick, the workers earn between 40 cents and 50 cents -

a wage that has not changed since 1978.
 

The crowd gasped, shook their heads.
Workers are asking that Taco Bell, one of the major buyers of the worker's crop, pay a penny more

per pound of tomatoes they pick, which would double their salaries, Cortez said.
 

The coalition staged a 10-day hunger strike at the corporate headquarters in Irvine, Calif.,

along with students throughout the country that ended March 5, 2003.

Company executives, members said, offered no reply.
 

"They don't respond because they don't have to," Cortez said. "They don't have a public face.

We had to take this into the public light to make a change."
 

Crowd member Joe Shea, vice president of the Hispanic Democratic Caucus, asked:

"Does this problem exist in Manatee County? Is it possible that there is slavery here?"
 

There is slavery and exploitation anywhere there is agriculture, according to Cortez.
 

"When you hear about slavery, people are shocked, but you can't deny it," Cortez said.

"It's like trying to cover the sun with your thumb."
 

In Manatee County, there are continued efforts by housing officials,

farmworker advocates and some local growers to find a place to build affordable housing

for scores of farmworkers and their families.
 

WWW.FLORIDAJOBS.ORG/PDG/ MSFW/DEFAULT.HTM My Florida offers a Web site devoted to migrant farmworkers.