A profile of farmworker Oscar Otzoy, member of longtime WhyHunger partner, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers.
WhyHunger is pleased to be partnering with Andrianna Natsoulas, longtime food sovereignty activist and author of the forthcoming book Food Voices: Stories of the Food Sovereignty Movement. In 2010, Andrianna began a journey across the Americas to capture the stories of people working towards and living a just and sustainable food system. As she continues her journey, spanning from Nova Scotia to Ecuador to Brazil and beyond, we will feature highlights of the stories she gathers.
Oscar Otzoy is a farm worker in Immokalee, Florida. He came to the United States from Guatemala in 2006 to work in the fields and since then has teamed up with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers to make a better life for farm workers.
“I arrived here with the dream of being able to help my family but, unfortunately, once you begin working in the fields, you realize the reality of the food industry. I was picking vegetables, and the wages were sub-poverty wages. I was working for 10 or 12 hours a day for a total of $50 or $60. And many people feel like they are just a machine in the fields. If you get sick the company will just fire you. It is like you are an old tool. When you are broken, instead of fixing it, they just let you go. Another thing is that you don’t have steady work. People will ask what are the benefits of working in the field. And the truth is that there are no benefits that come along with being a farm worker.
“But there are far uglier cases. In the past 13 years, there have been nine major slavery operations uncovered in Florida. I did not live through this situation. In 2007, there was a slavery situation in Palatka, Florida. These men were poor African American men, citizens of the United States, who were gathered from different cities and enslaved in Palatka picking fruits and vegetables. In 2008, men were held here in Immokalee chained in the back of a truck and held against their will and charged rent for this truck that they lived in, charged for the food, and threatened if they tried to leave or escape.
“So we launched the Campaign for Fair Food. What we did was go to companies and say these are the problems we confront every day. What we called for was a penny more per pound of tomatoes that we picked, along with a Code of Conduct with zero tolerance for slavery, and the voice of farm workers included in carrying out this Code. Another really important right is the right to complain or report a complaint without fear. Another area was the right to complain when it comes to sexual harassment, which is extremely prevalent in the fields.
“So we have broken through various barriers, but we see that there is still much more we need to do. In reality, to transform industrial agriculture, it is necessary to change the supermarkets. So now we are focusing on supermarkets like Publix, Kroger, Ahold and Walmart. When food is coming from situations where there is exploitation and, in the most extreme case, slavery, how is it that someone could accept that produce as their food? It is a question for the consumer to reflect on. We are seeing changes happening now for the farm workers. So we see this as the beginning of a change but certainly not sufficient for the agriculture industry.”