An agreement between the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers is historic. It puts into place a social and economic framework for improving the lives of the farm workers of Florida and protection of their human rights.
According to this new agreement, farm workers will be paid at least a penny per pound more for the produce they pick by the retailers who have agreed to this arrangement, and the Exchange will pass on the additional wages to the workers. During the last year the Exchange had been fighting against the arrangement whereby retailers like Taco Bell, Burger King and McDonald's agreed to pay at least a penny per pound more for tomatoes picked, and for a while the Exchange had taken action in the courts to place this money in escrow. Now the Exchange is endorsing this arrangement.
Not only will the Exchange endorse the additional pay provided by retailers, but also it will enforce a code of conduct for the treatment of farm workers. Farm workers are the most vulnerable laborers in our society. Most of them come from another country like Mexico or Guatemala. They may not speak English and have no social connections in this country. They are virtually hidden from society's view, and they are easy prey for those who would abuse them. For example, the sexual harassment of women has been a common problem. With the growers' endorsement of the code of conduct written by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, these workers will now have a protection of their human rights and dignity which they have not had in the past.
The beauty of this agreement is that it is voluntary. It is not being coerced by the government. It is an agreement between employers and workers to protect their rights and to increase their pay.
The increase in pay for the workers still depends upon the voluntary participation by retailers like fast-food chains and grocery chains. Many companies have come to realize that their customers would rather pay a tiny bit more for their food if they knew that the human beings who picked it were being protected and paid a little more.
The Lakeland Ledger published an excellent editorial about this agreement. It can be found at www.theledger.com. (Click "opinion" and then "editorial" for the editorial titled "Harvest of Progress.") The Ledger says, "Reaching agreement with Publix, Walmart and other major retailers could help lift Florida's farm families from poverty." Let us pray that this comes to pass.
This historic agreement will not make the lives of farm workers easy or secure. Their income will still be low. Their work will still be back-breaking. They will still show up at a parking lot at 5:00 a.m. every day to ask for work without knowing if they will get any. They will still have to ride a bus to the fields and hang around until the crops are dry enough to pick before they earn a single cent. They will still be paying high rent for poor lodgings. They will still be looked down upon by many. Yet this agreement is a very good thing, and it should be the beginning of a transformation in the lives of farm workers, for it should spur progress in other ways.
i think it is fitting that this agreement is announced close to Christmas. On Christmas Eve, we hear the story of the nativity of Jesus. An angel of the Lord announced to shepherds the birth of a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. At that time in history, shepherds were often considered "dishonest, outside the Law" (for example, they often grazed their sheep on others' land), according to Raymond Brown in The Birth of the Messiah. In other words, the shepherds were at the lowest level of society. They did the dirty work few were willing to do, and , like the poor always, they were looked down upon as shifty or lazy. The divine revelation of the birth of the Savior to these people is a sign of God's special concern for the poor who have much less of the world's goods and who suffer from the world's disregard. If Jesus were born today, would his birth be revealed to some farm workers in the tomato fields of Immokalee, Florida? Because God has entered into human history in Jesus Christ, the world is no longer the same. Despite the continuing existence of sin and evil, there is at work in the world the Spirit of Jesus Christ, who has come to execute justice and righteousness. Every victory for these causes is a witness to the Gospel that Jesus Christ is the measure of human nature and behavior.