The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW)1 is the recipient of the 17th annual Salem Award for Human Rights and Social Justice for their work to eliminate modern-day slavery in the agricultural industry.

The coalition was founded in 1993, when six migrant workers laboring in the agricultural fields of Immokalee, Florida began to meet regularly in a local church to discuss ways to improve working conditions and generally improve their lives.

Within five years, by generating pressure and attention with community-wide work stoppages, farmworker strikes, hunger strikes, and marches, the organization had won pay raises and the beginnings of political power. Now representing 4,000 migrant laborers and organizing thousands more, the coalition has broadened its agenda to fight for workers’ rights, fair wages, health coverage, better working conditions, decent housing, the right to organize, an end to indentured servitude, and the abolition of slavery.

Its anti-slavery campaign has helped to bring seven successful court cases involving more than 1,000 workers and more than a dozen employers in the past decade. The cases involved employers who used violence and intimidation to restrain farmworkers and make them work for little or no pay.

The coalition actively works with law enforcement agencies in investigating and uncovering slavery rings, and assists in the federal prosecutions of slave-holding employers. The CIW is a co-founder of the national Freedom Network USA to Empower Enslaved and Trafficked Persons. It is also a co-founder and Southeastern U.S. Regional Coordinator for the Freedom Network Training Institute, conducting trainings for law enforcement and social service personnel in how to identify and assist slavery victims. The CIW is a member of the U.S. Attorneys Anti-Trafficking Task Force for Tampa and Miami.

Starting in 2001, in an effort to address the poverty, root causes, and conditions that allow slavery and forced labor in Florida to continue, the coalition began a series of activities aimed at fast-food corporations, which are among the largest purchasers of tomatoes in the U.S.

Called the “Campaign for Fair Food,” and using boycotts, cross-country educational campaigns, and publicity-generating actions aimed directly at the restaurant chains, the CIW has successfully reached agreements in the past seven years with Burger King, McDonalds’s, Taco Bell, Subway, and Whole Foods. The companies have agreed to pay more for their produce (in amounts to be passed directly to the farmworkers), establish more stringent supplier codes of conduct, adhere to “zero-tolerance” guidelines for labor abuses, and set up monitoring protocols to better enforce labor improvements in the agricultural industry.

Mr. Lucas Benitez and Mr. Gerardo Reyes Chavez, both longtime leaders and spokesmen for the coalition, and who accepted the Salem Award on May 9, 2009, on behalf of the CIW, point out that the ultimate solution to eliminating modern-day slavery rests with the leverage that corporations, supermarkets and other large-produce buyers and consumers can bring to bear on the exploitive practices of produce growers and farmworker employers.