The Observer is a student-run, daily print & online newspaper serving Notre Dame, Saint Mary's & Holy Cross. Learn about us.



Spring break 2007 – South Florida, uncensored

Guest column | Wednesday, March 21, 2007

When one thinks of sweatshops, countries such as China and India probably come to mind. Most people think sweatshops in the United States do not exist; most people feel employee abuse and slavery are long gone. Up until a few months ago, I also shared these common American misconceptions. This past spring break, I went on the Migrant Experiences Seminar in Immokalee, Fla., which was offered through the Center for Social Concerns. It was through this seminar that I was exposed to the harsh realities migrant workers face. Notre Dame, an institution that promotes Catholic social teaching, has previously taken initiative against large corporations that exploit employees. Many may remember the Taco Bell boycotts that took place on campus several years ago. These boycotts were a large success due to nationwide student involvement and activism. While this was a monumental step toward a fair wage for farm workers, it only marks the beginning. We as a Catholic community must continue to be advocates for social justice in every aspect of life.The battle for migrant worker rights is still ongoing. While in Immokalee, I saw a community exploited in every possible way. For instance, most migrant workers must rent trailers which are often roach- and rat-infested – many do not even have electricity or running water. According to an article published in Gulfshore Life Magazine, the cost for one of these trailers is roughly $500 per week. When I asked several people in the community about the cost of housing, they reaffirmed the overcharging. Due to the ridiculous pricing, people are forced to combine incomes to pay the rent; many 2-bedroom trailers have 10-16 occupants. This description is not solely based on interviews. For one of the nights I was in Immokalee, I stayed in one of these trailers. It was difficult seeing human beings forced to live in such a state while I attend a school with an endowment of over $4 billion.Despite the Taco Bell boycott victory, stagnant wages and worker abuse are still prevalent in the fields. At wages of 40-45 cents per 32-lb. bucket of tomatoes picked – wages that have remained the same since 1979 – migrant workers earn significantly less than those at the poverty line. The very best workers only earn $50 for a full day’s work. Taco Bell is only one purchaser of tomatoes. Pressure has been placed on other fast-food giants so that they too will increase the pay of farm workers and enforce a code of conduct throughout their supply chain. McDonalds, the face of the industry and a main purchaser of tomatoes in Immokalee, has refused to follow Taco Bell’s footsteps. The migrant workers have united and are once again seeking allies. Notre Dame students have proven to be a very powerful force in the past; it is now time to continue where we left off. It is important to note that there is a difference between charity and social justice. I do not wish for people to simply throw money at the problem and hope it fixes itself; that is not activism or social justice. These people are not looking for handouts; they want people to work with them to change a system of exploitation. We need to become conscientious consumers so as not to promote situations of exploitation like those that I witnessed first-hand while on spring break.For those that want to take action, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers – a group of migrant workers that banded together several years ago in an effort to end unfair treatment – is organizing a rally at McDonalds’ corporate headquarters in Oak Brook, Ill;, April 13 and a parade in downtown Chicago April 14. This is being done in an effort to send a clear message to McDonalds and other fast-food corporations that exploitation is wrong.

Kristofer Trujillo is a freshman Finance and Political Science Major living in Keough Hall. He can be reached at [email protected] views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.