My small part in educating women in the tomato industry

This article appears in the Notes from the Field feature series. View the full series.

Immokalee, Florida — Notes from the Field are reports from young women volunteering in ministries of Catholic sisters. The project began in the summer of 2015 when, working with the Catholic Volunteer Network, we enlisted four young women working in Honduras, Thailand, Ethiopia and the United States to blog about their experiences. The fall 2015 series presents two more women, both volunteering with sisters' ministries in the United States.

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Do you know what's inside that tomato you are eating?

I'll tell you what I see. Besides that glossy, thin, smooth skin that contains juicy flesh and edible seeds, I see the daily struggles that female farmworkers face. Women are more subject to abuse from farm owners or co-workers most of the time because of the mere fact that they are women.

As I mentioned in one of my earlier posts, I recently started working with the Farm Labor Supervising Program at the University of Florida, which provides training in four locations throughout southwest Florida. The program teaches nine classes for which students can earn a Certificate of Farm Labor Management.

I see myself as one of the people behind the scenes, someone who makes sure there are enough copies for each of these classes, translates presentations from English to Spanish, and revises quizzes and tests. But I constantly wondered what the trainings were like. I knew what each was about, but I did not have the opportunity to attend any of the classes because I work at an after-school program in the afternoons. A few days ago, I had the afternoon off, so it was finally time to attend one of the trainings. Off I went to Belle Glade, Florida, approximately two hours away from Immokalee.

We had two classes that day: Human resource compliance and CPR/first aid. I took my new notepad to take notes. I have to tell you that by the end of the day, my notepad was half full!

I always go into new experiences with an open mind. This new experience was no exception. That day, I learned a lot more information than I would have ever thought.

The HR compliance class covers topics related to hiring, firing, employee benefits, wages, paychecks, and overtime. It also pertains to workplace safety, privacy, and preventing discrimination and harassment. This is one of the most popular and equally important classes the program teaches. It is important for farmworkers and HR personnel of the farm to be familiar with local, state and federal employment laws because that is how they will essentially be protected.

A university professor or professional in that area teaches the classes. I was lucky enough to be present during an HR compliance class where attorney Victoria Mesa was the one teaching.

I say lucky because in September, she won a $17.42 million lawsuit against Moreno Farms. She represented five female farmworkers in a case involving sexual harassment and rape. This win was a major statement for the rights of migrant workers in Florida's $100 billion farm industry. This verdict sends a message to every other woman working in Florida's fields that regardless of their immigration status, they do have rights.

We talked about this case for some time, then the women in the class shared stories about themselves or relatives who have been assaulted and/or discriminated against by their bosses or co-workers. One of the participants described her daily torment as unbearable.

"Todos los dias, te comian con la mirada," she said. "Every day, they [the owners of the farm] would eat you with their gaze." I get frustrated and torn every time I hear stories like these. It is situations like these that make me wish I had a magic wand to make these issues go away. But we know this cannot happen.

The first thing I noticed when the class started was that the whole class was made up of women. As the class was going on, I looked at the farmworkers sitting around me and began to think about them and about the type of information being taught. I, a college graduate, was not aware of all of these injustices or, more importantly, about the information given about laws and regulations. I can only imagine how many female farmworkers in Immokalee are familiar with the laws that exist to protect them against any form of discrimination or assault. My guess is not many.

The female farmworker population is the most vulnerable to abuse because they have so many factors against them, like socioeconomic class, immigration status, and just the mere fact that they are women. But I would like to think that through this program, we are able to reach female farmworkers, educate them and give them the basic information regarding state and federal regulations that could protect them.

This training made me realize how valuable my work is. Translating 150 slides can get monotonous, but in the end, it is necessary for farmworkers to get educated about these issues and regulations. It is my job to provide a good translation for the class so they learn and understand about what their rights are and what to do if they are ever in a sticky situation.

When I got home after the training, I was very inspired by all the stories and information learned in class. I cannot begin to describe just how much respect I have for those women who are working mothers and despite the adversities faced at the workplace, they keep their heads up y siguen adelante (they keep going). So next time you see a tomato at the supermarket, I hope that beyond the physical characteristics, you take the time to think about some of the tears shed in the daily struggles some women face in the tomato industry.

[Sharon Zavala is a Humility of Mary volunteer in Immokalee, Florida. She has bachelor's degrees in environmental studies and Spanish from Allegheny College.]