March 24, 2009

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

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."

| 2 Comments

2 Comments

Thank you for highlighting this outrageous practice.

Quoting you:

"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 farm workers and domestic workers are weak, fall under the radar."

If you are so concerned about people who are in the act of committing a felony why don't you champion the cause of those who have been caught convicted and incarcerated the American Citizen population. The conditions are at a minimum worse than any labor camp in Florida. Personal safety is non-existent, roaming gangs, terrible food, sadistic guards, minimal chance to move up in the world and almost surely doomed to return and return.

Oh wait, prisons don't pay workers comp premiums to they?

But for the most part prisoners are here in the US as fellow citizens. But we don't care about them. Lets instead campaign for the rights of people who are here to steal opportunities from our own citizens.

I think the best bet for our prisoners is to seek citizen ship from Venezuela and protection from Hugo Chavez, he is going to need the votes.

Why don't you next take up for the rights of the oppressed of Guantanamo Bay prison.

Or even better and patriotic, the conditions that are armed forces live in. Try to leave the military without permission and they make you a felon. Under certain circumstances they can legally SHOOT you dead. Have you ever eaten MRE's? Have you ever been told to go out and get shot at because a politician wants to make a POINT? Have you ever spent weeks without a shower or a bed other than hard ground? Talk about exploitation. Think about boot camp and how degrading, unfair and undignified.

There are far more important things to concern yourself with other than illegal immigrants who freely put themselves at risk to the detriment of your fellow citizens.

Sincerly

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About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Julie Ferguson published on March 24, 2009 10:06 AM.

Health Care Reform and the Cost of Comp was the previous entry in this blog.

It's spring ... and the start of trench death season is the next entry in this blog.

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