Floridian farm worker and human rights activist Lucas Benitez (pictured here), co-director of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, delivered the address Thursday, initiating the three-day event.
"Farm workers in Florida would have to pick two-and-a-half tons of tomatoes a day just to make minimum wage," Benitez said.
In Florida immigrant fruit and vegetable pickers work six days a week, 12 hours a day, for about $13,000 a year. Florida's growers have invested millions in a campaign to stop them from getting just one penny per pound more for the crops they pick.
Last month federal authorities indicted six people from Immokalee on slavery charges. The Palm Beach Post reports prosecutors claim that Antonia Zuniga Vargas and five members of the Navarette family - Cesar, Geovanni, Jose, Villhina and Ismael - held more than a dozen Guatemalan and Mexican workers against their will. The defendants, who collectively face charges that could imprison them for decades, are accused of making the workers pick produce and then sleep in trucks and shacks. The migrants had to pay for food and showers and were threatened with beatings if they tried to leave. The abuse allegedly goes back three years.
The case came to light in November only because three workers, with fresh bruises from their beatings, were able to break out of a truck and tell their story to Collier County deputies. A dozen other slavery cases have surfaced in Florida during the past decade, but none with as many victims.
The arrests validate the efforts of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers that has exposed a half-dozen slavery cases.
The following is from the Daily Texan (University of Texas).
Group protests Burger King labor policy
By: Nathan Batoon
Crowds gathered in front of the Martin Luther King Jr. statue on the UT campus Saturday afternoon and marched to Burger King on Guadalupe Street in protest of tomato pickers' rights in Immokalee, Fla.
The Coalition of Immokalee Workers organized the protest against Burger King to help stimulate recognition for the farm workers in Immokalee. The organization fights for fair wages and rights for laborers, a majority of whom are Latino, Haitian and Mayan Indian. The workers want a penny more per pound of tomatoes they produce and pick in Immokalee. This protest was part of a five-day event that included UT's Student Conference on Latin America.
The statue of Martin Luther King Jr. loomed over Lucas Benitez, co-founder of the coalition, as he spoke over a bullhorn to rally protesters for the rights of farm workers.
"Give us the dignity and respect that we deserve as farm workers in America," Benitez said.
Benitez organizes protests at universities and in churches to get the youth involved, he said.
"I've been to over 100 protests around the country at universities. In the student community, we create more awareness about farm workers," he said. "These campaigns helped get McDonald's and Taco Bell to change their policies regarding their labor force; we fight to get Burger King to change its policy, too."
People from all over the U.S. gathered to support the organization's cause. Shannon Gorroes traveled from Kansas to march in Saturday's protest.
"I'm here to march in solidarity with my Immokalee brothers," Gorroes said.
Omar Berrios, an aspiring documentary filmmaker from Puerto Rico, came with a group of San Antonians to support Benitez' cause.
"The way big business in America treats its workers affects the world economy; it affects everyone," Berrios said.
Meghan Cohorst, a coalition board member who organized the protest, said she believes this type of grassroots demonstration is part of a greater movement for all oppressed people.
"Protesting is part of direct action, and the gain from protesting translates to all workers - not only workers in Immokalee, but those in industries where the abuse of labor runs rampant," Cohorst said. "Protesting is just one of the steps in the process for change," she said.
Five police units were called to the protest at Burger King, but the demonstration remained peaceful. Burger King employees did not come out of the restaurant and refused to comment about the protest, but they told protesters to "get off the Burger King lot," through a loud speaker.