In honor of National Farm Worker Awareness Week, WhyHunger is featuring a story from Community Voices, a storytelling site that amplifies the voices of grassroots leaders and organizations across the country to demonstrate how small acts of food sovereignty happening across the country add up to a powerful, vital collective. Oscar Otzoy came to the United States in 2006 from Guatemala. After working in the fields of Immokalee for some time, he became active with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers to fight for the rights of farm workers.
Oscar Otzoy left home so his brothers and sisters would have a better life with the money he earned. As he prepared to leave Guatemala and when he first arrived to the United States, he envisioned the American Dream Unfortunately, Oscar quickly discovered the realities of the food industry and sub-poverty wages. The wage of the farm worker has more or less remained the same for the past 30 years.
Oscar explains, “If a farm worker were to be earning the same that he or she was earning 30 years ago and kept right with inflation, it would be one dollar six cents per 32-pound bucket. Now, it is an average of 50 cents per bucket. The wage has increased slightly over the past thirty years by 5 or 10 cents, but not enough to sustain the life of a worker.” And, certainly not enough to sustain the life of the worker while sending money back home. Not only is the pay low, but also farm workers are treated as if they have no value; as if they are an easily replaced cog in a machine. Their entire lives are de-valued, and their dreams pop.
Oscar tells me about one case, in particular: “In 2007, there was a slavery situation in Palatka, Florida. The men were mostly poor African American, citizens of the United States, gathered from various cities and enslaved in a farm in Palatka. In 2008, men were held here in Immokalee in the back of a truck. They were actually chained in that truck and held against their will and charged rent for this truck, charged for food and threatened if they tried to leave or escape.”
In response, through the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, Oscar helped create a modern day slavery museum, which is a travelling museum that tells the story of abuses in the agriculture industry. Not only do they expose the realities, but they also tour city to city, empowering consumers to be part of the solution by calling on companies to change their policies.
The Coalition leads a Campaign for Fair Food. The primary demands of the campaign are to pay the farm workers a penny more per pound of tomatoes they pick; a Code of Conduct with zero tolerance for slavery; the voice of farm workers included in carrying out this Code; and, the right to file a complaint without fear of repercussions. This last demand is essential to end sexual harassment, which is rampant in the fields.
The next campaign targets supermarkets. Oscar believes that is the only way to truly transform industrial agriculture. And that requires consumers to understand the grave responsibilities we have every time we make a choice at the checkout counter. Oscar, again: “When one is eating food coming from situations where there is exploitation and in the most extreme case, slavery, how is it someone can accept that produce as their food? It is a question for the consumer to reflect. Consumers have this power to go to companies and say, ‘I shop here and I buy my produce here and we, as consumers, and you, as a company, have a responsibility to support the farm workers who bring food to our tables.’” Oscar believes that is the only way change can happen. United, we can make a difference.
In the eight years Oscar has been in the fields of Immokalee, he has seen a difference, and he has hope that more change is on the horizon. Oscar will not stop. He continues working with the Coalition, educating people, organizing workers in the field, and pressuring companies to change their ways. In that way, Oscar can envision the dream he first had when he crossed the border.
We, farm workers, have a dream to be able to improve our lives here in this country and also improve the lives of those in the countries that we come from. For many years this dream of improving our lives and the lives of our families has been very hard, if not impossible to achieve, but thanks to changes taking place now, we hope that in the future, workers will be able to achieve those dreams and a lot of it is thanks to the communities that have helped support the campaign.”
Continue reading on Community Voices.
Written by Andrianna Natsoulas, a social and environmental activist for three decades. She has worked at various organizations from Greenpeace to Public Citizen to the Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance. She has coordinated with the global food sovereignty movements and has served on national and international boards and steering committees to protect fishing rights, fight trade agreements and build alliances. Currently, she consults for local, regional and national organizations and lives in Las Cruces, New Mexico. WhyHunger partnered with Andrianna as she began a journey across the Americas to capture the stories of people working towards and living a just and sustainable food system as featured in her book Food Voices: Stories From the People Who Feed Us. Many of those stories can be found on this site and more information can be found at www.foodvoices.org.