Mobile Museum Focuses on Poor Working Conditions of Florida Ag Workers

"CIW has sponsored several worker marches, and has succeeded in raising wages substantially for previously voiceless tomato pickers."

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A mobile museum visits New York City. [Photographs: Leah Douglas]

Walking down the streets of New York City, you expect to encounter all sorts of oddities. But I'd never seen a museum on wheels—until the Florida Modern-Day Slavery Museum rolled into town for a visit. This mobile museum, which is currently stopping across the country, takes place in a cargo truck and is supplemented with large poster boards of information for passersby to read. The museum, sponsored by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, sets out to spread the word about horrible living and working conditions of tomato pickers and farm workers in parts of Florida.

In 2009, Barry Estabrook wrote an in-depth piece for Gourmet about tomato pickers in the Immokalee region of Florida. He detailed the near-slavery conditions that farm workers faced as they were forced to work long hours for very little pay, live in filthy and cramped conditions, and remain on the farm against their will.

Estabrook's piece brought this issue to the fore, but these awful conditions had been a problem for decades. And to this day, workers are subject to awful abuses across the state of Florida and elsewhere.

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Passersby stop to hear about the plight of tomato pickers throughout history.

The CIW seeks to end this mistreatment. The group began in 1993 when a few farmworkers began convening every week to discuss how to save themselves and their families from a life of near-slavery. They grew in number, and soon began real lobbying efforts to take on farm owners, as well as corporations and restaurants whose purchasing habits perpetuate farmworker abuse.

Over the years, CIW has sponsored several worker marches, and has succeeded in raising wages substantially for previously voiceless tomato pickers. Corporations such as Taco Bell, McDonald's, Burger King, and Subway have signed on in the past five years to improve working conditions and ensure fair pay for tomato pickers. The CIW continues to advocate for workers' rights and educate the public.

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A look inside the mobile museum.

This museum was very educational, given how little space there was to convey information. The poster boards were covered in easy-to-read chunks of history and quotes, so you can learn a lot in a short span of time. Walking through the cargo truck, a replica of those used to transport trapped workers in parts of Florida, was eerie and moving. The walls displayed pictures of abused workers and highlighted important court cases that addressed worker issues.

It is easy to be demoralized after reading about the abuses suffered by immigrants and laborers in these conditions. But I view the mission of CIW as an optimistic one. I have seen the support for labor issues on my own college campus, and know that there is rising awareness of and support for the causes these farmworkers advocate.

If the museum rolls through your town, I highly encourage a visit. At the very least, take a look at some of the work being done on these laborers' behalf—their lives are spent picking tomatoes for our salads, and their struggles shouldn't be overlooked or forgotten.

To see where the museum is stopping next, check out the tour schedule.

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