Following this week’s prolonged cold snap in Florida, news reports bemoaned the prospect of higher prices for orange juice and crops such as strawberries, citrus, and tomatoes. The state’s governor (and United States Senate hopeful) Charlie Christ promptly issued an executive order to get state assistance to growers.
But what about the workers who pick the produce?
At the best of times, a tomato harvester (to pick an example with which I am sadly familiar) might make $50 on a good day. It’s all piece work—you get about 45 cents for every bushel-basket sized container you pick. There is no overtime, and benefits do not exist. When you can’t pick tomatoes, for whatever reason, you earn precisely nothing.
That, according to Gerardo Reyes, a farm worker from the state of Zacatecas, Mexico, and a member of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a labor rights group, is exactly what is happening in southern Florida right now. It is the peak of harvest season there, and some 17,000 migrant workers have crowded into the town of Immokalee in the heart of the citrus and tomato region and Florida’s largest migrant labor community. “Only a few people are working, almost no one,” Reyes told me through an interpreter. “It’s a matter of luck if you find a little planting to do or something.”
Although the extent of damage is not yet clear, Reyes guessed that it would be at least three weeks before there is any work, and then at best it will come back as a trickle.
“The situation is going to be hopeless for people. Before, they were living in abject poverty. They weren’t making enough when there was work to put anything away for a disaster like this,” said Reyes. Meanwhile, the workers will have to rely on strained social service agencies and church soup kitchens for something as basic as food. How they will be able to afford rent is a question for which Reyes had no answer. And with widespread cold damage, there is no place they can move to where they might find work. “Basically, every crop is effected,” said Reyes.
When weather forecasters warned of approaching arctic air masses, the large corporate growers who control the vast majority of the state’s tomato industry put the produce industry’s answer to a full-court press, doing everything they could to salvage as much of the crop as possible. For the workers, that meant long hours in the fields, often late into the night. Without warm, protective clothing, the laborers toiled in freezing rain as temperatures dipped into the thirties and even twenties, said Reyes.
“Here in Florida, warm coats are expensive and hard to come by,” said Reyes. “We had people coming to the coalition and asking where they could find a winter coat for less than thirty dollars.”
Many of the migrants live in dilapidated trailers, ten or a dozen crammed into structures that Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-VT) said would be condemned in other jurisdictions when he toured Immokalee in 2008. They lack any form of heating and the windows leak cold air. Reyes said that it is not uncommon to see groups of workers huddled outside because it is warmer there than inside.
“Whenever there’s a natural disaster here—hurricane, heavy rain, freeze—it’s the workers who suffer,” Reyes said.
In addition to state assistance, the growers, who will see higher prices for the crops that survive, have access to crop insurance and other safety nets.
The people who harvest our food will have to rely on charity.