Organizing Farmworkers in the Sunshine State: Farmworker Association of Florida

The first plank of our Platform for Real Food calls for dignity for all food workers and their families. The Farmworker Association of Florida (FWAF), a HEAL member organization, is building power among farmworkers, in particular those from Latinx, Indigenous and Haitian communities, and rural low-income communities to respond to and gain control over the social, political, economic, workplace, health, and environmental justice issues that impact their lives. Specifically, FWAF is working to increase labor protections and benefits for farmworkers through their programs which include advocacy against pesticide use, immigrant rights, worker justice and disaster response. 

We spoke to Jeannie Economos, Farmworker Association of Florida’s Pesticide Safety and Environmental Health Project Coordinator, about FWAF’s rich organizing history and how they are fighting for fair labor practices for workers in Florida.

This conversation took place pre-COVID-19—a lot has changed since. Florida experienced one of the worst outbreaks in the country, and farmworkers have yet again borne the brunt of lax labor regulations and safety standards in their workplace—even as the country depends on their essential labor to maintain our food supply.

Since April, the Farmworkers Association of Florida has been juggling grassroots work of providing information, food, and  financial assistance to the Florida farmworker community with engaging in National and State-level policy advocacy, and organizing folks around the Census. You can keep track of their work on their Facebook page and donate to their Coronavirus relief fund for farmworkers.

 

Jeannie from Farmworkers Association of Florida leads a session
Jeannie(Center) from Farmworkers Association of Florida leads a session at the 2019 HEAL-Food Chain Workers Alliance Summit in Albuquerque, NM in May 2019

How did the Farmworker Association of Florida (FWAF) come to be?

Back in early 1980, United Farm Workers (UFW) were in Florida trying to organize citrus workers but they eventually left because Florida is such a tough place to organize. Why? Because it’s conservative. There are progressive pockets here but there is still a deep south mentality. Agriculture was very exploitative of workers then – it was pretty doggone racist, and it still is. 

After UFW left, Tirso Moreno, along with the nuns in Apopka founded Farmworkers of Central Florida to keep the organizing going. In 1980, there was a natural disaster in which much of the citrus crop was damaged; a lot of the workers that lost their jobs were residents who were eligible for disaster relief but didn’t get it, so the association came together to organize around that. It started in a town called Groveland-Mascotte and then moved to Apopka where the nuns were already organizing the African-American and Haitian communities. The nuns empowered the black and brown communities to work together to get streetlights, sewer lines, paved roads and city water in those areas of Apopka where they lived. So when the FWAF formed, it was mostly Latinx farmworkers but it also incorporated the African-American community and Haitian farmworkers. 

How is organizing with farmworkers different from other labor organizing?

Farmworker organizing is more relational while other labor organizing is often more transactional. Organizing with farmworkers is a very different reality from going to a workplace and organizing a union. We have a lot of programs that are for people who experience a lack of access to so many things. For example, we have an attorney come in once a month to help with legal issues. We do health and safety training for women of reproductive age and a chronic disease class—a lot of different programming that provides services to folks but also empowers them to speak out about their experiences and challenges while also gaining confidence in us as an organization. We ultimately want to help people organize on their own. 

What is happening in Central Florida concerning immigration enforcement?

The state of Florida passed SB 168 in April 2019. This is an anti-sanctuary city law and says that every municipality has to cooperate with ICE. The Southern Poverty Law Center led a lawsuit against this in which we were plaintiffs. Recently the judge made a ruling that except for two small points in the law, it was accepted and passed in the state making it all the more difficult for many to live and work here. There are several towns and cities in the state that have passed Section 287(g) of the U.S. Immigration and Nationality Act which authorizes the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to deputize selected state and local law enforcement officers to enforce federal immigration law. 

What do ICE raids look like in rural farmworker communities?

We haven’t had too many raids. What tends to happen around here is that people will be stopped on their way to work and asked for their papers. It hasn’t been too bad lately but people live in a state of fear. For decades, the victims of anti-immigrant sentiment were the workers, not the growers hiring them. It was the workers that were always afraid of being detained and deported. Now, the growers are afraid of being detained and held accountable for hiring undocumented workers so they are now using the H2A program for guest workers. Legally the grower should give preference to domestic workers with documentation but it’s become easier to hire guestworkers. We know of one grower who left his (domestic) workers with no food for three days so he could push them out and hire H2A workers. 

What happens after a worker is displaced?

It’s getting harder and harder to find work on farms so they end up in an underground economy where they are at the mercy of sub-contractors that take advantage of them, as many of them are immigrants or undocumented. We had someone come to us who was a victim of a trafficking scam where he was supposed to be in agriculture but he ended up doing roofing under a subcontractor. We have a lot of wage theft cases of folks who might have been farmworkers, or came here to be farmworkers but end up doing other jobs. 

How is climate change impacting the communities that you work with? 

We’ve been doing the work on heat protection for a while but in the last three years, we’ve been making the connection with climate change, environmental racism and agriculture.

Farmworkers are on the frontlines of heat exposure, if you are in a greenhouse it’s even worse. And apart from that agriculture is affected by climate change. For example, Hurricane Irma damaged crops and farmworkers’ homes. But with crops destroyed, farmworkers were out of work so they had to migrate or wait for the next planting season to begin work again. 

And then of course those who least contribute to climate change are the most affected in the times of natural disasters and also have the least means to recover from these calamities and in the case of farmworkers, it also impacts their jobs.  But there is a Heat Stress bill to protect workers in Congress right now that we have done some work on. 

When farmworkers have to wait it out—do they receive any compensation at all?

If they are undocumented, they don’t. Different crops have different seasons. In Immokalee, farmworkers who have children will come back here when school starts but the harvest season doesn’t start till late October so for a month and a half they get by on a shoestring. We know a woman named Linda who does a food drive during that time of the year, to collect food for people and take it down there to help people get through the months. 

How has the work of the association evolved over the years?

There are some improvements but many setbacks remain. We have better protections for farmworkers against exposure to pesticides, but they are approving antibiotics to be used instead. We also have better housing regulations for workers now. But while we have better protections for farmworkers in the books, many are afraid to report lack of compliance because of their immigration status. A lot of the emerging concerns have to do with the rise of anti-immigrant sentiment. 

Feature Image: Farmworker Association of Florida

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