By Patricia Zapor
BALTIMORE (CNS) — When Brigitte Gynther took a spring break trip to Florida while a student at the University of Notre Dame, little did she imagine it would put her on a career track, working for farmworkers’ rights.
During that trip, instead of sunning on a beach, Gynther and fellow students worked in the tomato fields alongside immigrant workers who make pennies a pound for back-breaking labor. Though she had been introduced to the Catholic Church’s social justice teachings at school, the first-hand experience led her on a new path in life.
Instead of being advised to give to the poor and do charitable work, Gynther said she had her first opportunity to listen to people like the field hands she met.
“Farmworkers are so ignored,” she said, and that is what makes them subject to being held in slavelike conditions in extreme cases.
Gynther, now 27 and the coordinator of Interfaith Action of Southwest Florida, was the recipient Nov. 16 of the Cardinal Bernardin New Leadership Award from the Catholic Campaign for Human Development. The award was given at a reception during the fall general assembly of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Interfaith Action is a network of individuals and religious institutions working in partnership with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers to improve wages and end human rights abuses in the region’s agriculture industry.
As Gynther explained at the reception after receiving her award, CCHD was one of the first organizations to provide funding for the Immokalee, Fla., workers to organize and to work for grass-roots support to get better wages and improve working conditions in Florida’s tomato fields.
In a series of hard-fought victories the coalition and its supporters have persuaded major food distributors — including Yum Foods, the parent company of Taco Bell, KFC and Pizza Hut, and McDonald’s, Burger King and Whole Foods — to pay tomato pickers a penny a pound more, approximately a 75 percent increase in the piece rate workers otherwise get.
Gynther said the groups are now working with one of Florida’s largest tomato growers to ensure there are dignified conditions in its fields, no human trafficking or other human rights abuses. And they’re beginning a campaign to get the nation’s major grocery chains to join Whole Foods and the restaurant companies in paying more for tomatoes to support the workers.
“What inspires me is the farmworkers, who have faith and hope,” Gynther said. “Faith is what brought me to Immokalee.”
In presenting the award, Bishop Roger P. Morin of Biloxi, Miss., chairman the U.S. bishops’ subcommittee on CCHD, said, “Brigitte gives great hope to all of us.”
John Carr, executive director of the USCCB’s Department of Justice, Peace and Human Development, said CCHD’s work shows “we recognize an ecclesial obligation to practice what we preach” when it comes to seeking justice for all.
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