Thursday, July 30, 2015

What is Living Better?

Earlier this year while driving within our great state of Michigan, I saw the slogan 'Save Money. Live Better.' on the truck trailer of a large retailer. The slogan really bothered me because I just kept thinking, "What does that mean?" Is this what we have come to in the U.S. - saving money makes life better? What is the cost to our society in general if this is what we believe? Do people care that believing this way, acting this way, shopping this way is hurting other people?

I just recently had the great fortune to attend the Answering Pope Frances' Call: An American Catholic Response to Modern-Day Slavery at the Catholid University of America.  There I heard Gerardo Reyes Chavez speak about his experience as a farmworker in the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW). The CIW harvests tomatoes in Florida. Mr. Chavez did a wonderful job of describing exactly what I was thinking about when I read 'Save Money. Live Better.'

Florida produces 90% of the tomatoes produced in the U.S. and the CIW found that wages of the farm workers producing tomatoes were decreasing over time. CIW started a campaign aimed at the companies that buy tomatoes in order to show them how the low prices being paid for tomatoes effect people down the supply chain. The CIW wants companies to recognize that the artificially low prices that they create lead to basically poverty pay for farm workers.  They want companies to recognize that farm workers are people who need to support themselves and their families. Even more important, they want people to see the farm workers as people - human beings as equally as important as any other people in the world.

Mr. Chavez said the CIW started its campaign out of necessity for farm workers' lives and because they are "fighters because we have no choice." They have won many battles in their fight:

  • 7 court cases regarding labor trafficking;
  • 1200-1500 workers liberated;
  • 15 bosses prosecuted;
  • several multi-billion dollar companies signing Fair Food agreements; and
  • $15 million added to farms' payrolls in the past 4 years.
Fair Food agreements include a provision that the retailer must pay a small premium on each vegetable which is how the millions of dollars have been added to the farms' payrolls. What about that large retailer with the slogan that made me question what we as Americans really want? They signed a Fair Food agreement just last year!Hearing Mr. Chavez speak was very powerful to me because it demonstrates the reasons we all must continue this fight against human trafficking and that success is happening - lives are being liberated. 

Most of us might not have the same reasons to fight as the CIW - we have more choices - but if we choose humanity and dignity for all then we must fight. We need to eliminate the possibility of slavery by fighting for what is fair and right.

TAKE ACTION: You can help stop labor trafficking by telling your retailers and the restaurants you frequent to sign Fair Food agreements.  Visit the CIW or the Fair Food Program for more information and to participate in current actions.

Renee Gonzales, M.S.W. is the Permanency Planning Director at the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. She has been a social worker for 17 years in the child welfare field and has held a variety of positions at MDHHS.