It was an unusual sight for the luxury shoppers and brunch-goers on sleepy Worth Ave in Palm Beach Saturday afternoon: a parade of farmworkers clad in T-shirts and bandanas, banging on tambourines, shouting for “justicia” and dancing to Spanish songs blasting from a pickup truck.
The storefronts advertising fine jewelry and designer clothes were far, literally and figuratively, from the labor camp in Pahokee, bounded by barbed wire, where their march began. Many had walked for four days and nearly 50 miles to get here, sleeping in churches and resting in parks or sometimes even the middle of the road if there were no cars.
“This one was quite short,” said Pastor Miguel Estrada, of Immokalee, who walked the whole distance. In the past, he had joined workers on marches for 200 miles and weeklong fasts.
Protesters march through Palm Beach calling for retail food giants to join the Fair Food Program, a human rights initiative that helps protect farmworkers on their suppliers’ farms, on Saturday, March 18, 2023. (John McCall/South Florida Sun Sentinel)
Saturday concluded the five-day march protesting forced labor and exploitation of farmworkers across Florida, calling for a boycott of multiple corporations until they join the Fair Food Program, an initiative that seeks to limit their abuse. Their targets included Wendy’s, whose billionaire chairman Nelson Peltz lives in Palm Beach, as well as grocery giants Publix and Kroger.
In a speech at the Palm Beach marina before the final two miles of their walk, U.S House Rep. Lois Frankel thanked the workers before her for putting “the food on our table.”
She described learning of workers who were pulled from the tomato fields and raped by their supervisors.
“What an honor it is to be with folks who are willing to march peacefully,” she said, “standing up to power.”
Farmworkers, many of whom are undocumented, make up much of the state’s economic backbone, picking its tomatoes and watermelons in farms from Immokalee to Belle Glade. They are often exploited as a result of their immigration status, fearing the consequences of alerting authorities.
The Pahokee camp where the march began had housed a forced-labor operation where workers were threatened with deportation and violence if they tried to leave, according to the Coalition for Immokalee Workers, which organized the march and first reported the crimes. The leader was sentenced to nearly 10 years in prison.
At the rally ahead of the march, farmworkers, students and church leaders joined Frankel and human rights lawyer Kerry Kennedy in celebrating recent victories while protesting ongoing exploitation, which the CIW calls “modern day slavery.”
On the stage beside them sat a giant globe, one side painted black, the other painted blue to represent those “two realities,” said Lucas Benitez, co-founder of the CIW.
Participants in the Fair Food Program purchase their produce from suppliers who agree to a code of conduct that explicitly prohibits that kind of exploitation. Several major companies, including Taco Bell, McDonald’s, and Whole Foods have joined the Fair Food Program since it began in 2011. But the workers won’t be satisfied until others, like Wendy’s, follow suit.
“We are specifically calling on these companies to commit to a code of conduct created to protect against wage theft, sexual harassment, and zero tolerance for forced labor,” said Lupe Gonzalo, a former farmworker and leader of the CIW.
Wendy’s responded to the criticism Saturday by saying that it has its own code of conduct and “third-party reviews” of its labor practices.
The company purchases all of its tomatoes from greenhouses, which it says would not allow it to join the program.
“Wendy’s does not participate in the Fair Food Program because there is no nexus between the program and our supply chain,” a spokesperson for the company said in an emailed statement. “Since 2019, Wendy’s has sourced our North American tomato supply exclusively from indoor, hydroponic greenhouse farms, while the Fair Food Program predominantly operates in outdoor, conventional tomato growing environments...The idea that joining the Fair Food Program, and purchasing field-grown, commodity tomatoes, is the only way that Wendy’s can demonstrate responsibility in our supply chain is not true.”
Gonzalo said that these efforts do not consider the farmworkers’ perspectives.
“When you don’t include workers’ voices...you’re not going to be able to eliminate the conditions we face,” she said.
Outside of the abuse on their farms, many of Florida’s workers are underpaid and struggling to afford rent, said Estrada, whose congregation in Immokalee serves many undocumented workers.
They typically work seven days a week, and must often choose between putting food on their own tables and going to the clinic, he said.
Undocumented farmworkers have come under increasing scrutiny by Gov. Ron DeSantis, who recently announced efforts to crack down on the workers and the companies that hire them, such as by requiring all employees in the state to prove their citizenship through E-Verify. Critics have raised concerns that the policy would harm Florida’s farmworkers specifically.
“They’re scared when they hear that kind of news,” Estrada said. But, he added, “this is not the first time we hear news like that.”
Estrada has doubts that policies like that would actually go into effect.
“Let him try something like that,” he said of DeSantis. “And he will learn, soon, how important the work of these people is.”
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After the rally, marchers began the final two miles of their walk, from the marina to a Publix, carrying signs painted with tomatoes and watermelons and even an effigy of Peltz himself. Residents paused to watch from their balconies and on the sidewalk. Some took pictures; others waved.
Pedestrians watch as protesters march through Palm Beach calling for retail food giants to join the Fair Food Program, a human rights initiative that helps protect farmworkers on their suppliers’ farms, on Saturday, March 18, 2023. (John McCall/South Florida Sun Sentinel)
Not everyone was a fan.
As Paul Ortiz, a history professor at the University of Florida, handed out flyers to passersby, he said some of them asked him, “did they come here illegally?”
“It’s not effective communication,” said Rollin Reisinger, a retired investor who lives on the island, as he stood outside of the restaurant Taboo. “To march here on a Saturday, when Palm Beach is out to brunch, with no clear message.”
But for the marchers, getting the attention of the wealthier side of Palm Beach County was part of the point.
In a speech, Rev. Sharon Austin of the Florida conference of the United Methodist Church recalled growing up in the county, “watching groups of Black people waiting for buses to Pahokee and Belle Glade so they could pick the food we eat.”
“Sometimes those that are wealthy and in power sit too high and they don’t look low,” she said.