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The fields of Florida

The fields of Florida

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

The fields of Florida

Dec. 17, 2006    News media contact:  Tita Parham*    
800-282-8011     Orlando {0589}

NOTE: A headshot of Whitaker is available at

An e-Review Commentary
By Bishop Timothy W. Whitaker**

Between the interstate highways of Florida, out of sight of tourists and many Florida citizens, are vast fields and orchards where much of the produce and fruit eaten by Americans is harvested. This food would not be on our tables were it not for the labor of workers from Mexico, Guatemala and Haiti.
Imagine rising at 4 a.m. daily to gather at a parking lot at 5 a.m. to ask for work every day. If you are fortunate, you will be one of the workers bused to a field by 8 a.m. For several hours while the dew on the crops dries, you are assigned a task like weeding. After all of this time you still have not earned a penny because you will be paid only for gathering (produce) at a rate of less than 50 cents for a 30-pound bucket. Your goal is to earn $50 a day, which requires filling a lot of buckets in the heat and the humidity. After eight hours of gathering you are transported home. Home is perhaps a one-room dormitory that rents for $200 a week or an old trailer without air conditioning that rents for $400 a week. Your place will be crowded because a farm worker has to share space in order to afford the rent. You don’t even think about benefits for all your labor.
This is the daily reality for thousands of people in Florida. Indeed, sometimes the reality is harsher. There have been incidents of physical and psychological abuse of workers by their bosses. There are incidents occasionally of workers being subjected to forced labor, i.e. slavery.
Since 1993 the farm workers in Immokalee have organized The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) in the town of Immokalee 20 miles north of the Big Cypress National Forest in the South West District of the Florida Conference. Last September I visited CIW with the Rev. Allen Jefferson, the district’s superintendent, the Rev. Roy Terry, Mr. Marion McMillan and Mr. Steve Hart of the Amos Center.
CIW has won numerous national awards for its leadership of a boycott of Taco Bell of the Yum! Corporation. Unable to negotiate with growers for higher wages (an extra penny for every pound harvested), CIW attempted to negotiate with a supplier. After failing repeatedly to negotiate with Taco Bell, CIW initiated a boycott. In the end, Taco Bell agreed to the demands and has proven to be a corporate leader in addressing the legitimate concerns of farm workers.
Presently, CIW is attempting to negotiate with the McDonald’s corporation, but so far without success. CIW again is asking for an increase of one penny per pound.
CIW has been active on other fronts as well, including breaking up forced labor activities that involved 1,000 workers and stopping the beating of laborers.
As United Methodist Christians, we should become more knowledgeable about the conditions of farm workers in our state and make our witness for economic justice in the name of Jesus Christ.
The Social Principles of our church state: “Migratory and other farm workers, who have long been a special concern of the Church’s ministry, are by the nature of their way of life excluded from many of the economic and social benefits enjoyed by other workers. Many of the migrant laborers’ situations are aggravated because they are racial and ethnic minority persons who have been oppressed with numerous other inequities within the society. We advocate for the rights of all migrants and applaud their efforts toward responsible self-organization and self-determination. We call upon governments and all employers to ensure for migratory workers the same economic, educational, and social benefits enjoyed by other citizens. We call upon our churches to seek to develop programs of service to such migrant people who come within their parish and support their efforts to organize for collective bargaining.”
CIW has received support from Christians in the Roman Catholic, Episcopal, Presbyterian and United Church of Christ communions.
Learn more about CIW by visiting

This article relates to Church and Society.

*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**Whitaker is bishop of the Florida Conference.