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Agriculture Is Great, As Long As You Aren’t A Farm Worker

Today I found myself watching an amazing 2014 documentary, hosted by Forest Whittaker, titled Food Chains.   This insightful documentary centers around  Immokalee,  Florida, known as the tomato capital of America, and depicts the horrible conditions that tomato farm workers, and farm workers in general, have been forced to endure in the past decades.  Human rights violations are particularly high for farm workers due to little or no government legislation, as well as a fear of reporting by the abused farm workers themselves. The video shows an in-depth examination of the atrocious treatment (human slavery, sexual harassment, low wages, long term exposure to pesticides, etc) of farm workers throughout the country, with a particular focus on Immokalee and the steps that a small group of tomato farm workers took to take a stand against these deplorable conditions.

One such story focuses on a slavery ring discovered in Immokalee, Florida in 2007.  Farm workers seeking employment were giving farm jobs and housing and charged exorbitant rates.  These high rates led to the workers incurring debt to the two brothers that had established the ring.  These debt-incurred workers were then treated as slaves with wages being stripped away and nights spent chained in the back of a u-haul truck.  One such worker, after spending a year in the back of this truck, noticed a hole in the roof and managed to break free of his chains and escape out the hole.  This is not an isolated story.

This slave ring eventually became a case before the justice department and brought national attention to the deplorable conditions that farm workers are being faced with.  This national attention has recently led to an interest by some senate members,  although to date, no official legislation has been formally passed to protect farm worker’s human rights.  To date, slavery, and particularly, sexual harassment are still rampant.

Tomatoland by Barry Estabrook
Tomatoland by Barry Estabrook

An excerpt from Barry Estabrook’s newly released and highly acclaimed book, Tomatoland (a book I highly recommend), further describes these atrocities:

…Although there have been recent improvements, a person picking tomatoes receives the same basic rate of pay he received thirty years ago. Adjusted for inflation, a harvester’s wages have actually dropped by half over the same period. Florida tomato workers, mostly Hispanic migrants, toil without union protection and get neither overtime, benefits, nor medical insurance. They are denied basic legal rights that virtually all other laborers enjoy. Lacking their own vehicles, they have to live near the fields, often paying rural slumlords exorbitant rents to be crammed with ten or a dozen other farmworkers in moldering trailers with neither heat nor air conditioning and which would be condemned outright in any other American jurisdiction…

…And conditions are even worse for some of the men and women in Florida’s tomato industry. In the chilling words of Douglas Molloy, chief assistant United States attorney in Fort Myers, South Florida’s tomato fields are “ground zero for modern-day slavery.” Molloy is not talking about virtual slavery, or near slavery, or slaverylike conditions, but real slavery. In the last fifteen years, Florida law enforcement officials have freed more than one thousand men and women who had been held and forced to work against their will in the fields of Florida, and that represents only the tip of the iceberg. Most instances of slavery go unreported. Workers were “sold” to crew bosses to pay off bogus debts, beaten if they didn’t feel like working or were too sick or weak to work, held in chains, pistol whipped, locked at night into shacks in chain-link enclosures patrolled by armed guards. Escapees who got caught were beaten or worse. Corpses of murdered farmworkers were not an uncommon sight in the rivers and canals of South Florida. Even though police have successfully prosecuted seven major slavery cases in the state in the last fifteen years, those brought to justice were low-ranking contract field managers, themselves only one or two shaky rungs up the economic ladder from those they enslaved. The wealthy owners of the vast farms walked away scot-free. They expressed no public regrets, let alone outrage, that such conditions existed on operations they controlled. But we all share the blame. When I asked Molloy if it was safe to assume that a consumer who has eaten a fresh tomato from a grocery store, fast food restaurant, or food-service company in the winter has eaten a fruit picked by the hand of a slave, he corrected my choice of words. “It’s not an assumption. It is a fact.”

The Food Chains documentary goes on to detail the formation of CIW (Coalition of Immokalee Workers).  Tired of the unfair and cruel treatment and very low wages, a few of these tomato farmers formed CIW in the 1990’s and have gone on to become a huge success in the advancement of human rights and fair wages for farm workers through myriads of hunger strikes and tireless activism, as well as the establishment of the Fair Food Program  and a Code of Conduct (designed to place the responsibility of providing better working conditions and wages on the food corporations that are buying the Immokalee produced tomatoes (Publix, Wendy’s, Walmart, Taco Bell, et.al.).  The Fair Food Program asks large retailers like supermarkets and fast food restaurants to pay just a penny more per pound of tomatoes and to refuse to buy tomatoes from farms with human rights violations. Their model has been touted as one of the better working models to date and has gained international recognition.

2014 CIW Fair Food Event
2014 CIW Fair Food Event

On March 21, 2015, CIW held the largest fair food march and concert in recent years and is making great inroads in eradicating terrible working conditions and poverty for the many farm workers in America, but it certainly has not been easy.  They have faced great resistance from the corporations they seek support from, particularly Publix and Wendy’s, who have flat out refused to even enter into discussions with the CIW in the advancement of better wages and working conditions for these farm workers.  They have stated that they are not responsible for the welfare of the farm workers, that it is the responsibility of the farm suppliers who employ the workers.  Yet these corporate food giants are so very wrong in promoting these statements. Since they control these food supply chains shouldn’t they be instrumental in providing fair and equitable working conditions and wages to the farm workers who supply them?

Fair Food LogoTo quote from the Fair Food Standards Council (overseer for the Implementation of the Fair Food Program):

The Fair Food Program emerged from the Coalition of Immokalee Workers’ (CIW) successful Campaign for Fair Food, a campaign to affirm the human rights of tomato workers and improve the conditions under which they labor. The work of the FFSC today is producing a replicable, scalable model for expansion of the Fair Food Program beyond the Florida tomato industry in the years ahead.

Comprehensive, Verifiable and Sustainable Change

The high degree of consolidation in the food industry today means that multi-billion dollar brands on the retail end of the industry are able to leverage their volume purchasing power to demand ever-lower prices, which has resulted in downward pressure on farmworker wages. The Fair Food Program reverses that process, enlisting the resources of participating retail food giants to improve farmworker wages and harnessing their demand to reward growers who respect their workers’ rights.

The Fair Food Program provides an opportunity for those corporations to bring their own considerable resources to the table – their funds and market influence – to help forge a structural, sustainable solution to a human rights crisis that has persisted on U.S. soil for far too long. In the process, the Fair Food Program will help build the foundation for a stronger Florida tomato industry that can differentiate its product in produce aisles and restaurants on the basis of a credible claim to social responsibility and so better weather the challenges of an increasingly competitive marketplace.

Under the Fair Food Program, participating growers have agreed to:

A wage increase supported by the “penny per pound” price premium Participating Buyers pay for their tomatoes;

Compliance with the human rights-based Code of Conduct, including zero tolerance for forced labor and sexual assault;

Worker-to-worker education sessions conducted by the CIW on the farms and on company time to insure workers understand their new rights and responsibilities;

A worker-triggered complaint resolution mechanism leading to complaint investigation, corrective action plans, and, if necessary, suspension of a farm’s Participating Grower status, and thereby its ability to sell to Participating Buyers;

Health and safety committees on every farm to give workers a structured voice in the shape of their work environment;

Specific and concrete changes in harvesting operations to improve workers’ wages and working conditions, including an end to the age-old practice of forced overfilling of picking buckets (a practice which effectively denied workers pay for up to 10% of the tomatoes harvested), the provision of shade in the fields, and the use of time clocks to record and count all compensable hours accurately; and

Ongoing auditing of the farms by the Fair Food Standards Council to insure compliance with each element of the program.

Together, we can make a difference and help eradicate the horrible working conditions and poor wages that these hardworking farmers are subjected to.  One way you can show your support is by signing this Fair Food petition.  For those of you who would like to take even further action in support of this cause, you may be interested in starting a campaign in your area.  Learn more here.



And lastly, take the time to petition Publix and Wendy’s to join this fair and equitable program and ensure our tomatoes meet the highest human rights standards in the food industry today.


I would love to hear your thoughts and comments.  For those of you who have not yet had the opportunity to watch  Food Chains or read Tomatoland, I urge you to put them on your to-do list.  They are truly eye-opening experiences of our current agricultural and food-supply chain practices.