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Tomato picker shares personal story at forum

Farm worker advocates Romeo Ramirez and Brigitte Gynther speak at the 2008 Young Adult Ecumenical Forum in Washington D.C. A UMNS photo by Kathy L. Gilbert.

By Kathy L. Gilbert*
June 20, 2008 | WASHINGTON (UMNS)

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers was organized in Florida after a young migrant farm worker was brutally beaten when he stopped to get a drink of water while picking tomatoes.

Outraged, other farm workers marched to the tomato grower's home, carrying the young man's bloody shirt as a flag.

"We told him by beating one of us, he was beating all of us," said Romeo Ramirez, a farm worker who is now a member of the coalition.

More than 600 laborers marched that night in 1996, helping the workers to realize that there is power in organizing.

Workers harvest tomatoes at a farm
in Immokalee, Fla. A UMNS photo
by Scott Robertson.


Ramirez shared his story with young adults gathered for the 2008 Young Adult Ecumenical Forum focusing on slavery and human trafficking in the 21st century. The June 12-15 forum was held at Wesley Theological Seminary, a United Methodist-related school in Washington. Also speaking was Brigitte Gynther with the group Interfaith Action of Southwest Florida, which has worked with farm workers in their battle to gain equal rights and fair pay.

Ramirez traveled to Immokalee, Fla., in 1996 to escape poverty in Guatemala after farm industry recruiters came to his village promising a better life. "They go to Mexico or other countries and say, 'Come with us, we have a great job for you,'" he said. "When they get them to Florida, they are sold to contractors."

Before organizing, many workers were not paid for their labor and often were abused by supervisors in the fields. When the workers first shared their stories with the U.S. Department of Justice, officials did not believe them.

"He won't tell you this, but Romeo risked his life to get evidence for the department," Gynther said, sharing that Ramirez went undercover to gather evidence against the growers. Six slavery rings have since been prosecuted and another is under federal investigation, according to Ramirez.

Making progress

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers now has more than 3,500 members and just reached an agreement with the fast-food chain Burger King to increase the pay for farm workers and make tomato growers abide by a "code of conduct" eliminating abuses against the workers. Yum! Brands and McDonalds also have agreed to pay one penny more per pound to the tomato pickers and to only use tomato growers who follow the code of conduct.

The first victory for the grassroots organization came in 2005 when Taco Bell agreed to improve working conditions for tomato pickers in Florida after four years of talks and boycotts. The United Methodist Church supported the boycotts.

The coalition now is working to get Subway, Whole Foods and Chipotle to agree to the same terms.

"During the Taco Bell boycott, it was just amazing to have that support from the church. It was really powerful," said Gynther, citing the support of United Methodist Bishop Timothy Whitaker, episcopal leader of the church's Florida Area. "It was so heartening to have him come to visit Immokalee and visit the farm workers."

Ramirez agrees. "It is good for us that The United Methodist Church is not only worried about the spiritual parts of our faith but also about the teachings of our faith," he said. "The United Methodist Church is a church that lives out their faith."

*Gilbert is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in Nashville, Tenn.

News media contact: Kathy L. Gilbert, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.


Romeo Ramirez: “…fair conditions and dignity.”

Romeo Ramirez: “…the workers are the ones affected.”

Related Articles

Young adults address slavery, human trafficking

United Methodists declare victory for farm workers


Coalition of Immokalee Workers

Interfaith Action of Southwest Florida

United Methodist Board of Church and Society

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