Exhibit Shines Light on Farmworker Conditions

Published: Apr 1, 2010
Christine Merry ’11 had trouble believing the kinds of conditions some farmworkers are subjected to until she spoke with members of the Student/Farmworker Alliance.

The national network of students and youth organize with farmworkers to eliminate sweatshop conditions and modern-day slavery in the fields.

Merry said her eyes have been opened to the atrocities, from denying workers fundamental rights such as sick days and healthcare to the unimaginable abuse of chaining them up at night in the back of a box truck which was recently discovered in a 2008 federal court case.

“I was shocked that modern day slavery even existed in the U.S., let alone right here in Florida,” said Merry, a finance and management major. “My first reaction was, ‘how can we help?’”

Merry, a PEACE volunteer coordinator at UT, has been helping organize a visit by the alliance’s Florida Modern-Day Slavery Museum, a mobile exhibit housed in the back of a box truck highlighting the forced labor, poverty and abuse of some farmworkers in Florida, the root causes of it, and some solutions.

The exhibit will make a stop at UT on its six-week statewide tour on April 5 and 6 from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. The mobile museum will be parked in front of the John H. Sykes College of Business.

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers, the human rights farmworker organization based in South Florida, conceived the idea for the museum. The goal is to educate students and to let them know they can be part of the solution, said Meghan Cohorst, the national co-coordinator of the Student/Farmworker Alliance, which is based in Immokalee.

“Most people are shocked when they hear about it, shocked that this is happening in 2010,” said Cohorst, adding that farmworkers are paid between 40-50 cents per 32-pound bucket of tomatoes, a rate that hasn’t changed since 1978.

“They can join the campaign to improve wages and working conditions for farmworkers by calling on buyers to commit to a code of conduct, having a zero tolerance for modern-day slavery and paying 1-cent per pound more for tomatoes,” she said.

Janice Law, director of UT's Academic Center for Excellence and history lecturer, said she thinks the most important thing about this exhibit is that it will educate students on the horrors of daily life for the modern day farmworker.

“Hopefully students will realize the importance of the choices they make in selecting where they shop and eat,” Law said, “and what they can do to contribute to the elimination of these labor practices.”

Cohorst said farmworkers run the gamut from being immigrants in the U.S. on work visas to being here for political asylum. Some are undocumented and some are American citizens.

“This is something that happens to everyone,” Cohorst said. “It’s not an immigration issue. It’s a human rights issue. Everyone has the right to fair working conditions.” 

For more information, contact Merry at the PEACE Volunteer Center at (813) 253-6263 or Cohorst at meghan@sfalliance.org or (239) 657-8311.


Jamie Pilarczyk, Web Writer
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