SALEM — A group of farmworkers fighting to end what it calls "modern-day slavery" in the agricultural fields of Immokalee, Fla., will receive The Salem Award for Human Rights and Social Justice Friday night.
The Coalition of Immokalee Workers represents about 4,000 migrant laborers who pick the produce that winds up in local supermarkets or as a topping on your McDonald's Big Mac or Taco Bell Gordita.
It's harsh, back-breaking work that, even under the best scenario, amounts to the equivalent of minimum-wage pay, said Julia Perkins, a coalition staff member.
Farmworkers receive between 40 and 45 cents for every 32-pound bucket of tomatoes they pick — a wage that has barely changed since 1978, Perkins said. To earn the equivalent of Florida's minimum wage, workers have to pick 2.5 tons of tomatoes in a 10-hour work day, she said.
"You can theoretically pick that much, but that means you're not taking breaks, you're running the entire day under the hot Florida sun, you're really pushing the physical human body to the extreme," Perkins said. "In other cases, it might rain, so you don't get any wages for that day."
American farmworkers receive between $10,000 and $12,000 a year, are excluded from overtime pay and can't form unions, she said.
"That's for one of the most difficult and yet most necessary jobs we have," Perkins said. "So we're looking for ways to give that a little more dignity, so people can raise their families and not kill themselves because how long can the human body work that hard?"
In the most extreme cases, the practice has resulted in modern-day slavery with workers held against their will, Perkins said. The coalition assisted four workers in a successful lawsuit after they were chained to a pole and beaten, then locked in a truck overnight.
Using a combination of boycotts, hunger strikes and campaigns, the coalition has reached agreements with Burger King, McDonald's, Taco Bell, Subway and Whole Foods to improve wages and working conditions.
The companies agreed to pay more for their produce with the increase going directly to the farmworkers, according to the coalition.
"The biggest goal out there is to bring the agriculture industry into the 21st Century," Perkins said. "In other industries you don't hear about wages that were stagnant for 30 years."
Meg Twohey, a member of the Salem Award for Human Rights and Social Justice Foundation, said the lives of Immokalee farmworkers and Salem residents do cross paths.
"Their tomatoes are delivered to our fast-food restaurants and to our table, so we are a part of a food chain that goes all the way back to their work and to the very difficult conditions they continue to have," Twohey said. "But certainly none of us would imagine it would involve slavery."
The Salem Award presentation and reception, set for Friday at 7:30 p.m. at the Peabody Essex Museum, is free, though reservations are recommended because space is limited. Lucas Benitez, one of the coalition's founders, and Gerardo Reyes-Chavez will talk about their work and accept the award on behalf of the group.
A dinner with the award recipients will be held beforehand at the Hawthorne Hotel at 5:30 p.m. and tickets are $50.
Reservations for either event can be made by calling 978-745-2682 or visiting www.SalemAward.org.
Staff writer Chris Cassidy can be reached at email@example.com.