Sisters of St. Joseph call for better farmworking conditions

Photo courtesy Coalition of Immokalee Workers

The working conditions on the tomato farm were extremely difficult. There was no access to water on hot days, no bathrooms in sight, and workers regularly experienced harassment at the hands of their bosses. The abuses were all too common, and workers felt they didn't have enough power to speak up.

It was daunting to think about how "you'd have to go home that day and know you'd have to return to the same conditions the next day," said Lupe Gonzalo, who shared her story as part of a discussion on labor trafficking at the Sisters of St. Joseph U.S. Federation meeting in July in Orlando. More than 700 sisters attended the meeting.

Gonzalo is a member of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a Florida-based organization that promotes anti-trafficking efforts through improving difficult working conditions for farmworkers. The coalition also initiated the Fair Food Program, a partnership of farmworkers, growers and food companies who work to end longstanding abuses in the agriculture industry.

"What motivates us is that workers are being treated as human beings," Gonzalo said.

She became acquainted with the coalition in 2010, when the tomato farm she worked for signed an agreement with the Fair Food Program. She now works for the coalition, organizing people in the community to raise awareness of fair treatment for workers and assisting with worker-to-worker education via the Fair Food Program. Gonzalo also is a mother, and she said the awareness efforts extend to children of farmworkers. At a women's support group, participants learn about their rights as women and workers. "The children are seeing their mothers as leaders," she said.

The sisters' federation meeting concluded with a call to action, urging fast food chain Wendy's to join the Fair Food Program, to provide farmers fair working conditions, just wages, shade and rest breaks from their work and zero tolerance for sexual harassment. After an unsuccessful attempt to have a discussion with Wendy's leadership, the sisters have initiated a letter-writing campaign. They also have purchased stock in the company in an effort to have a voice as shareholders.

The sisters have been promoting awareness of labor trafficking because of their belief that all are created in the image of God and deserve to be treated with dignity and respect, said Sister Patty Johnson, federation executive director.

"This is slavery and bondage. And who are the people most vulnerable to it? They're the kids that we've known in foster care, the kids in school who weren't very sure of themselves," Sister Patty said. "We've known these people who become victims of trafficking all our lives."

Whether labor or sex trafficking, the kind of fear that victims live with is life-altering, she said. The sisters have focused on intervention on numerous levels, including prevention, early intervention, providing services to those affected by trafficking and addressing root causes.

While in Orlando, the sisters also worked with hotel chain Caribe Royale to sign a Code of Conduct for the Protection of Children from Sexual Exploitation in Travel and Tourism. The six-point code of conduct was developed by End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography and Trafficking Children for Sexual Purposes (ECPAT), an international non-government organization.

Caribe Royale, which has adopted the code at all four of its properties in Florida, has agreed to establish an ethics policy regarding commercial exploitation of children, train personnel, introduce a clause in suppliers' contracts stating repudiation of commercial sexploitation and provide information to travelers and local "key persons" at destinations.

At its federation meeting five years ago, the sisters worked with the Millennium Hotel to sign the ECPAT code. The action also led St. Louis-based Nix Conference and Meeting Management to form the Exchange Initiative to provide resources, information and networking opportunities to combat sex trafficking in the United States.

One of its major efforts has been the TraffickCam app, in which users upload photos of hotel rooms to help identify what hotels traffickers are using with their victims.

Even though the Millennium Hotel has since closed, signing the code "really opened things up and made other hotels consider it," said Sister Patty. "The Millennium was really the first one to do this because of a proactive stance." 

Farm worker industry

• Farmworkers in the U.S. earn extremely low wages, with an average annual individual income of $12,500 to $14,999.

• Injustice in the farmworker industry is an outcome of corporate supply chains' focus on maximizing profits at the expense of workers' health, safety and quality of life.

• Many of the farmworkers are actively recruited by labor contractors who promise them a good job and a better quality of life. These labor contractors charge workers a high recruitment fee, causing them to be indebted before their work contract begins.

• Farmworkers deserve fair working conditions and just wages and to not be forced to work in slavery conditions

• Corporations need to protect farmworkers' fundamental human rights in their supply chains.

Source: Coalition of Immokalee Workers 

Call to Action

The U.S. Federation of the Sisters of St. Joseph have initiated a call to action to urge fast food chain Wendy's to join the Fair Food Program.

To learn more about the effort, including a letter-writing campaign and collection to support the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, visit www.stlouisreview.com/bK9 

Your rating: None Average: 5 (1 vote)