Most people don’t realize that slaves are working in our fields here in America. These slaves number in the thousands and we eat the food they produce every day. In the case of the tomato pickers in Florida; however, there has been some progress in eliminating it. This is the state where 90% of our winter tomato crop is grown.
In the last 25 years, between 1200 and 1500 people have been freed from agricultural slavery rings and their captors prosecuted. The workers had been cruelly beaten, shackled in chains at night, housed 20 per mobile home and each charged $200/month for rent. There was no relief from the sun in the fields, no breaks for meals and 10 to 12-hour work days, 7 days/week ~ and for the vast majority, no way to escape.
In 1993, several men in Immokalee, Florida did manage to escape and went to the civil authorities. The Federal Government got involved, prosecuted their case, and won. With help from civil rights groups, the tomato workers have since formed the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, CIW, that now works for safe and fair working conditions. Other areas across the country where slave-conditions still prevail can only hope for similar relief.
The CIW was successful in getting such things as relief tents in the fields, bathroom breaks, meal breaks and work hours limited. But agricultural work is grueling in itself: stoop labor in the fields is back-breaking, workers must wear protective sun gear over every inch of their bodies. The workers are subject to health hazards from crop sprays, wage theft, intimidation, and human trafficking ~ both sex and labor. All this and the pay is barely enough to feed their families.
The CIW began working for more just compensation for the field workers. Up to this time, the tomato pickers in Florida earned less than 2 cents for each pound of tomatoes they picked. The CIW was successful in getting the 14 top commercial tomato buyers in the US to agree to an increase of a penny/pound. Among those pledging were Wal-Mart, Whole Foods, McDonald’s, Subway, Burger King, Taco Bell, and Chipotle. The total cost to all the buyers combined, who made this Fair Foods Pledge of a ‘Penny per Pound’ is a mere $4 million per year.
Strangely, Wendy’s is the only one among the five largest food chains that has refused to join. This company was founded in Columbus, Ohio, with its flagship store just across from St. Joseph’s Cathedral. Wendy’s founder, Dave Thomas, was a big benefactor of ODU, underwriting the renovation of Hamilton Hall many years ago. What has happened to this company since Dave died?
Just south of our border, Mexican workers still endure slave conditions, where both adults and children work six days a week, some for less than $10/ week. Many go unpaid, are poorly fed, live in rat- and scorpion-infested shacks and punished severely if they try to escape. Strangely, some of the US businesses listed above which made the Fair Foods Pledge, also buy from these cheaper Mexican farms.
So what can we do? A lot! Check out the action in today’s OP Peace.