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Farm Workers Claim Slavery is Alive and Well in Florida

posted on April 25, 2008


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Florida tomato growers are wrapping up another in a series of bitter harvests. Historically, tomatoes have been the "Sunshine State's" biggest vegetable crop, ranking just behind citrus and sugar in total production. Nevertheless, the industry is coping with a series of challenges.

Input costs are soaring; increased competition from Mexico is cutting into profits; and immigration reforms are curtailing the number of workers in the field.

But finding labor may be difficult for another, more dubious, reason. Earlier this year a federal grand jury indicted six people in Immokalee, Florida for operating a modern-day slavery ring. Over the past decade, more than half-a-dozen others have been convicted on similar charges in Florida and sentenced to time in federal prison.

And as Andrew Batt explains, charges of oppressive working conditions in the fields of Florida are anything but new.

In 1960, CBS broadcast the landmark documentary "Harvest of Shame." Hosted by legendary journalist Edward R. Murrow, the program introduced America to the plight of migrant farm workers.

Oppressive working conditions, poverty level wages and substandard housing were depicted graphically and the program made a distinct impression on the conscience of the American People.

While federal labor laws, including minimum wage standards have been implemented since 1960, some workers claim things haven't changed in the 40 years since "Harvest of Shame." In fact, some suggest slavery is alive and well in the fields of southern Florida.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont: "So it is terribly important that we understand that in the year 2008 slavery – slavery can exist in Immokalee and how workers can be treated as bad as they are."

A recent hearing on Capitol Hill is only the latest chapter in a series of accusations, protests, and apparent vindication. Charges of slavery and deplorable working conditions largely stem from the humid tomato fields of South Florida where thousands of laborers harvest millions of tomatoes each year.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont: "How in God's name does slavery occur in the United States in 2008?"

Collier: "It's occurring every day and it's likely happening as we speak. Workers are threatened every day."

Eric Schlosser, an advocate on issues like drug policy and the food industry is best known for his novel "Fast Food Nation".

Schlosser: "I've looked at the war on drugs and how the war on drugs operates if there is marijuana grown on that property they lose their land. I would recommend that growers who are caught with slaves would then lose their farms."

Market to Market first reported on Florida's migrant worker movement in 2002, when the Coalition of Immokalee Workers was fighting fast-food giants for higher pay.

Lucas Benitez worked as a migrant farm worker for nearly 10 years picking everything from oranges to tomatoes.

Frustrated by the poor wages, he co-founded the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a farm worker advocacy group based in Immokalee, Florida.

Benitez says migrant farm workers are denied the right to organize, don't receive benefits like health insurance, sick leave and pensions and often live in substandard housing. He says the trailer shown here rents for about $800.00 per month and is shared by six workers.

Lucas Benitez (Translation): "The living conditions here are really sub-human. Housing is a real problem here, but in the end, everything is still tied back to the low wages that we earn in the field."

Companies like Taco Bell and McDonalds pay tomato suppliers on a per pound basis. Farm workers lobbied the fast-food giants to pay one more cent per pound for tomatoes and to pass those dollars onto day laborers. Taco Bell eventually agreed to the penny a pound raise in 2005, and McDonalds followed suit in 2007. The extra penny per pound from McDonalds and Taco Bell was expected to nearly double farm worker wages from 40-cents to 72-cents per bucket of tomatoes.

Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Illinois: "So what did the Florida tomato growers say when these companies of conscience came forward and said we'll give you an extra penny a pound out of our bottom line? Not only did they say no but they said we'll fine you $100,000 if you dare pay them an extra penny per pound."

During the hearing, Senators Dick Durbin and Bernie Sanders blasted the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange and demanded answers to why the extra penny was never passed on to workers.

Reggie Brown, Executive Vice President, Florida Tomato Growers Exchange: "The Florida Tomato Growers Exchange does not object to the penny a pound being paid by McDonalds or Yum Brands. We simply do not wish to participate in the distribution of those monies for the legal reasons we've outlined previously."

Reggie Brown cited anti-trust laws as the reason the exchange didn't want to pass funds from the fast-food giants onto migrant workers. But Sanders dismissed Brown's concerns and pressed him further on the issue $100,000 fines to growers that decide to pass on the penny to workers.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont: "Isn't it true that the growers exchange threatened to impose a fine?"

Reggie Brown, Executive Vice President, Florida Tomato Growers Exchange: "That is correct."

In addition to allegations of industry stonewalling, lawmakers pointed out misleading estimates of migrant worker pay.

Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Illinois: "Mr. Brown is going to tell you that these workers make $12 an hour. Please join me in doing the math. How many tomatoes do you have to pick in one hour in those conditions to make $12? Almost 3000 tomatoes. You have to fill that bucket and empty that bucket every two minutes. Is that physically possible? I don't think it is."

Lucas Benitez, Coalition of Immokalee Workers: "Realistically, it's impossible."

Reggie Brown, Executive Vice President, Florida Tomato Growers Exchange: "It is a way for the worker to receive the maximum money for his labor. It is an incentive reward system."

Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Illinois: "So to suggest that these people are making dramatically more, maybe double the minimum wage in America is beyond any credible belief."

Mary Bauer, a farm worker lawyer from the Southern Poverty Law Center, took issue with many of Brown's comments.

Mary Bauer, Director, Immigrant Justice Project, Southern Poverty Law Center: "When piece workers are paid their hours are routinely falsified and that is what the workers in Immokalee described to me."

Bernie Sanders, an Independent Senator from Vermont, called for a congressional audit of migrant worker wages and put one further shot across the bow of the Florida Growers Exchange.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont: "This is not the end. This is the beginning. Most of us on the committee believe it is deplorable and that these conditions should not exist in 2008 in the United States of America."

 


Tags: agriculture Congress crime farmers farms Florida immigration jobs news politics slavery