Florida Farmworkers Say Publix Won't Protect Workers From Sexual Violence

Rape and sexual violence are a near certainty for poor, migrant women working in Florida fields. Workplace rape is frighteningly common — a New Times investigation in 2015 chronicled a horrifying case of mass rape at one Florida farm. Other studies have suggested 80 percent of female farmworkers experience sexual harassment or violence during their careers handling food and produce.

Despite those frightening facts, Publix and Wendy's, two of the nation's largest food chains, refuse to join the labor-rights monitoring group the Fair-Food Program, run by the Coalition of Immokalee Farmworkers, a labor- and human-rights group. Chains such as Walmart, McDonald's, Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, and KFC have become part of the group and reportedly seen instances of labor exploitation and sexual misconduct decrease.

For the past eight years, farmworkers with the coalition say they've begged Publix to join the program. The same goes for Wendy's, which the rights organization says has held out for the past four years. So at 12:30 tomorrow, the coalition will hold a protest in downtown Miami demanding the two companies commit to protecting their most vulnerable workers against sexual violence on the job. (The march will begin at Margaret Pace Park, 1745 N. Bayshore Dr.)

"We know 80 percent of farmworkers experience harassment, but when people join the Fair Food Program, that number severely dwindles because there are actual monitoring mechanisms in place," Uriel Perez, a coalition member coordinating the protest, tells New Times. "But for some reason, Publix has decided to not join. This campaign has been going eight years; we've had marches, a six-day fast, a movie dedicated to the Publix campaign, and they've still refused to sign." (Perez says the group could not point to specific instances of abuse tied to Publix.)

Spokespeople for Publix did not immediately respond to a request for comment from New Times today. But in the past, the company has painted its refusal to join the Fair Food Program as a "labor dispute" — the supermarket chain says it does not own the farms from which it buys food and claims it therefore cannot demand better rights for the farmworkers. But the coalition claims that excuse is bunk and wants Publix to reconsider.

"They say they're not directly contracting with farmworkers, so they're not responsible," Perez says. "But that's really ignorant of the way agriculture works. Because of the millions of dollars that corporations like Publix pump into growers, those growers are allowed to continue doing what they do."

Moreover, the Fair Food Program is designed to deal with the very problem Publix describes: Chains that join the project agree not to buy food from growers who have been cited for violations. They also agree to pay compliant farms extra pennies per pound and immediately drop growers who are caught abusing workers.

Perez says Publix has never even spoken with the coalition despite its nearly decade-long campaign. That's odd in light of the fact that other massive food chains have joined the Fair Food Program and media outlets such as the New York Times and PBS have lauded the coalition's work.

As for Wendy's, the coalition, which is based in the farmworker-heavy Southwest Florida city of Immokalee, northeast of Naples, says the fast-food chain not only refused to join the monitoring program but also shifted its entire tomato-growing enterprise to Mexico. As of 2016, Wendy's was still reportedly buying tomatoes from the Mexican company Bioparques de Occidente, which has been the subject of multiple large newspaper investigations and nearly constant allegations of worker abuse. Farmworkers have regularly protested outside Wendy's corporate headquarters in New York City and will continue to do so this week.

As for Publix, Perez says it's about time Floridians became more aware of the way the state's beloved supermarket chain treats farmworkers. (New Times has repeatedly criticized Publix for allegedly mistreating LGBTQ employees and called out the daughter of its founder for donating money to try to stop the legalization of medical marijuana.)

"Just here in Florida, people are in love with Publix," he says. "It's very dear to them. But these corporations paint themselves as great for doing this or that in the community, but that's not the whole story."

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