The high price of fresh tomatoes: more on agricultural slavery in Florida

March 24th, 2009 by Julie Ferguson

Barry Estabrook of Gourmet takes a look at the tomato harvesting industry in Florida and it’s not pretty. In Politics of the Plate: The Price of Tomatoes he suggests that if you’ve eaten a tomato this winter, it’s likely that it was picked by a virtual slave. He focuses on Immokalee county, which a chief assistant U.S. attorney based in Fort Myers terms as “ground zero for modern slavery.” Estabrook paints a dismal portrait of immigrant workers who are exploited, cheated, threatened, injured, and abused – some literally being locked up or chained to prevent escape. Estabrook notes that since 1997, law-enforcement officials have freed more than 1,000 men and women in seven different cases … and those are only the instances that resulted in convictions. Given the illegal status of most of the victims, many are intimidated or reluctant to press charges.
We’ve covered the issue of modern day slavery in Florida before – same issues, but this time with oranges. Our posting covered the Palm Beach Post’s stunning three-part special report on how Florida’s famous orange juice comes with hidden costs.
Most people have a tendency to think of slavery as happening elsewhere but in reality, it exists right here in the land of the free. The Baltimore Sun recently featured an expose on slavery in America citing reports that “thousands [are] annually trafficked in America in over 90 cities; around 17,000 by some estimates and up to 50,000 according to the CIA, either from abroad or affecting US citizens or residents as forced labor or sexual servitude.” According to a 2004 U.C. Berkeley study, these people can be found working in:

  • prostitution and sex services – 46%
  • domestic service – 27%
  • agriculture – 10%
  • sweatshops or factories – 5%
  • restaurant and hotel work – 4%
  • the remainder coming from: sexual exploitation of children, entertainment, and mail-order brides

The article goes on to discuss each of these “employment” sectors, citing other studies and reports and summarizing the scope of the problem. In terms of farmworkers, it cites a 2004 Oxfam America report that found nearly two million farmworkers living in “sub-poverty misery, without benefits, without the right to overtime,” without a living wage, or other job protections, including for children. The Oxfam report noted that most state laws perpetuate inequality, especially Florida and North Carolina.
This issue is largely but not exclusively one of immigrant workers. We’ve talked about the issue of illegal immigrant workers many times before as the issue relates to workers comp – or lack of it. There are many hardliners who feel that if a worker has illegally entered this country to work, well the heck with them – they get what they deserve. We strongly disagree. We believe that employers everywhere at minimum owe workers a safe workplace, good working conditions, fair pay, dignity, and basic fairness. Worker exploitation diminishes us all. In many industries, state and federal laws protect workers. But legal protections for some industries such as farmworkers and domestic workers are weak, fall under the radar.
In Estabrook’s Gourmet article, he ends on a somewhat hopeful note in discussing how wholesale buyers – large supermarket chains and fast food restaurants – could make an enormous difference in the situation by refusing to deal with exploitative growers. So far, several fast food chains – Yum! Brands, owner of Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, KFC, Long John Silver’s, and A&W; McDonald’s, Burger King and Subway, and only one grocery chain, Whole Foods, have all signed on to the Campaign for Fair Food, an initiative of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a grass roots worker organization that is fighting for: “a fair wage for the work we do, more respect on the part of our bosses and the industries where we work, better and cheaper housing, stronger laws and stronger enforcement against those who would violate workers’ rights, the right to organize on our jobs without fear of retaliation, and an end to indentured servitude in the fields.”