Farmworkers Fight Abuse - and Win

Students learn about and discuss the remarkable success of an organization of farmworkers that is fighting abuse and demanding dignity on the job. The activity includes two short videos, discussion, and a reading.


Invite students to stand up if the following statements apply to them. If your students are differently abled, consider doing this activity by inviting students to raise their hand or find another way for all students to be able to participate in this activity. 

After each statement, invite students who have stood up to share what they know about each statement.  

  • Your family cooks with and eats tomatoes
  • You’ve ever thought about how those tomatoes (or other produce) make their way to your kitchen
  • You know Florida is the nation’s largest producer of fresh tomatoes
  • You are familiar with the #MeToo movement
  • You have ever seen a “fair food” label on the food that comes into your house
  • You have heard the term “modern slavery” used in connection with migrant farm workers in the US
  • You have heard of Coalition of Immokalee Workers in Florida

Ask students if they know how all these statements are connected?
Explain that in today’s lesson we’ll be looking at the plight of immigrant farm workers in Immokalee, an impoverished farm town in southern Florida that has, for decades, been a leading producer of fresh market tomatoes in the United States. Immigrant farm workers often work under horrific conditions. This was most certainly the case in Immokalee before the Coalition of Immokalee Workers set out to change that. 
The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) is a worker-based human rights organization that has been internationally recognized for its efforts to promote social responsibility and stop human trafficking and gender-based violence at work. It began in 1993 as a group of farmworkers organizing to improve their conditions. In 2000, this organizing was reinforced with the creation of a national consumer network of people concerned about the conditions under which their food is produced. Since then, CIW’s work has steadily grown, and includes addressing worker conditions and worker rights not only in Florida,  but in states including Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Maryland, Virginia, and New Jersey.  
Today’s lesson will focus on the organization’s Fair Food Program, launched in 2011.

A child holding a sign

Photo: CIW and their allies march in Florida in 2011. Photo by the National Farm Worker Ministry.

The Fair Food Program:
Combatting Workplace Abuse

Line up the first video, CNN’s “Freedom Project - Ending Modern-Day Slavery,” about the Fair Food Program.  Explain that the video can be broken up into two parts.  Part 1 tells the story of migrant farmworker Alexandrina and the abuse of farmworkers. Part 2 talks about the work of the Fair Food Program in Immokalee to combat abuses in agriculture.  Ask students to take notes about what stands out for them in both parts of the video.
Video 1 - The Fair Food Program:
After watching the video, ask students to turn to a neighbor to discuss their thoughts and feelings about it.  What stood out for them?  How did they feel about it? 
Next bring students back together and open up the discussion as a full group. Ask students to share what stood out for them about the video.  Continue the discussion using some or all of the following questions:

  • What does Alexandrina’s life look like today? 
  • What does she say about her job?   Was it always like this?
  • How is her story connected to the #MeToo movement?
  • Do you think her story is unique for women farmworkers?  Why or why not? 
  • How many women farmworkers have we heard speak out as part of the #MeToo movement?  Why do you think that is?  Why have their stories not been highlighted?
  • What does Jon Esformes say about agricultural workers, farming, and opportunities for abuse?
  • What has he done to combat that?
  • What does the video say about the Fair Food Program created by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers?
  • Why does the video say the Fair Food Program works?
  • Who is involved with the Food Program? Why is that important?
  • What does each of the parties stand to gain from being involved?
  • How can we as consumers support this movement?

Fighting Modern Day Slavery on Florida Farms

Line up another video from the same CNN Freedom Project series.  This one is called Fighting Modern Day Slavery on Florida Farms.  Explain that this video focuses specifically on the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, its history and its current focus.  Again invite students to take notes as they watch the video, this time focusing on the different ways in which CIW fights to improve working conditions of migrant farmworkers.

Video 2 - Fighting Modern Day Slavery on Florida Farms:
Again, having watched the video, ask students to turn to a neighbor to discuss their thoughts and feelings about the video.  What stood out for them in this video?  How did they feel about it? 
Next bring students back together and open up the discussion as a full group, asking them to share what stood out for them about this video. Continue the discussion using some or all of the following questions:

  • What do you think Laura Germino, co-founder of CIW, means when she calls Immokalee “ground zero for modern day slavery in agriculture”?
  • What does the video say about how CIW got started in 1993?  What were their goals initially?  How did they change?  Why?
  • What have some of their achievements been?
  • What does the Fair Food Program do?
  • How does it make sure workers rights are being respected?
  • Laura Safer Espinoza, former Supreme Court justice for the state of New York, runs the Fair Food Standards Council. She also uses the term “ground zero for modern day slavery” but calls it a thing of the past.  What do national and international human rights groups say about the work environment in Immokalee today?
  • What role do large buyers of tomatoes at the top of the supply chain play (buyers like McDonalds, Walmart, Subway, Taco Bell and Chipotle)?
  • What are the Fair Food Program’s next steps?


Digging Deeper: Strategic non-violent action

Invite students next to read this pdf handout about the various strategic actions CIW used to put pressure on those who wielded power in the tomato supply chain.  (The handout material is also included at the bottom of this lesson.)

Back in their small groups, or as a full class, discuss the handout using some or all of the following questions:

  • What are your thoughts and feelings about this piece?
  • What additional information does it provide about the way that CIW was able to meet its goals?
  • What methods did CIW use to force growers and the whole food industry to negotiate with them for more just conditions? (grassroots organizing by and among farmworkers, marches, labor strikes, hunger strikes, court challenges, systemic analysis, boycotts, and alliances with student and religious leaders, sustained over many years)
  • Could similar methods be used to end other injustices that concern us?  Why or why not?
  • What role do you think media has to play in all this, both traditional media and digital media?
  • The video(s) did not detail the intense pressure and sustained organizing it took to force food companies and growers to enact the positive reforms we see in the video.  Why do you think that is?


Invite students to share: If you were to forget everything else you learned today, what is one thing you’d like to hold on to or remember?

What is a cause or an injustice in your community that you could see yourself wanting to organize around?



Handout:  How did CIW win?

(also see this pdf version)

Excerpted from the Coalition of Immokalee Workers website

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) began organizing in 1993 as a small group of workers meeting weekly in a room borrowed from a local church to discuss how to better their community and their lives (for more background, check out Facts & Figures about Farmworkers).  Combining three community-wide work stoppages with intense public pressure – including an unprecedented month-long hunger strike by six members in 1998 and an historic 234-mile march from Ft. Myers to Orlando in 2000 – the CIW’s early organizing ended over twenty years of declining wages in the tomato industry.
By 1998, farmworkers had won industry-wide raises of 13-25% (translating into several million dollars annually for the community in increased wages) and a newfound political and social respect from the outside world. Those raises brought the tomato picking piece rate back to pre-1980 levels (the piece rate had fallen below those levels over the course of the intervening two decades), but wages remained below poverty level and continuing improvement was slow in coming….
In 2001, having won some wage increases for Florida tomato pickers and investigated some of the country’s earliest cases of modern-day slavery, the CIW did a deep analysis of the industry to understand where the power to make true systemic change resided. It became clear that the corporate food industry as a whole – and companies such as current CIW campaign targets Kroger and Publix in particular  – purchased a tremendous volume of fruits and vegetables, leveraging its buying power to demand the lowest possible prices from its suppliers, in turn exerting a powerful downward pressure on wages and working conditions in these suppliers’ operations.
With this realization, the Coalition turned a new page in their organizing, launching the first-ever farmworker boycott of a major fast-food company – the national boycott of Taco Bell – calling on the fast-food giant to take responsibility for human rights abuses in the fields where its produce is grown and picked. Over its four years, the Taco Bell boycott gained broad student, religious, labor, and community support. In March 2005, amidst growing pressure, Taco Bell agreed to meet all of the CIW’s demands to improve wages and working conditions for Florida tomato pickers in its supply chain.
Following the successful conclusion of the Taco Bell boycott, the national network of allies that had helped carry that campaign to victory consolidated into key allies organizations, the Student / Farmworker Alliance and Interfaith Action, signaling to the corporate food industry that the Campaign for Fair Food would not stop at Taco Bell. The Fair Food ally organizations became a powerful new voice for the respect of human rights in this country’s food industry and for an end to the relentless exploitation of Florida’s farmworkers.