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The Wall Comes Tumbling Down
It was an unlikely place to hear Abraham Joshua Heschel quoted, and the rabbi’s words came from an unlikely messenger.
At a news conference on a farm outside of Immokalee in southwest Florida, Jon Esformes, operating partner of the fourth-generation, family-owned Pacific Tomato Growers—one of the five largest growers in the nation with more than 14,000 acres in the US and Mexico—declared, “In a free society, few are guilty, but all are responsible.”
And with that he announced an agreement with the 4000-member Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) to implement a penny per pound pay raise—which stands to increase workers’ annual earnings from about $10,000 to as much as $17,000—and establish a code of conduct that includes an external complaint resolution system, shade and protective equipment in the fields, and a worker-to-worker education process on their rights under the new agreement.
“For us, you wake up and you realize that maybe this is something we could have done yesterday, but I am certainly not going to wait until tomorrow,” said Esformes.
For those who have followed CIW’s decade-long fight to raise farmworkers’ sub-poverty wages and remedy oppressive working conditions—including slavery—this agreement marks the moment when a wall of denial maintained by the Florida agricultural industry came tumbling down.
When the Department of Labor reported “sub-poverty annual earnings,” the growers denied it, claiming tomato harvesters averaged $12-$18 per hour.
When the USDA described farmworkers as “among the most economically disadvantaged groups in the US” with “poverty more than double that of all wage and salary employees,” the growers maintained that they were performing a service by providing needed entry-level jobs.
When the Department of Justice worked with CIW to prosecute seven slavery operations in Florida over the last fifteen years, resulting in the liberation of over 1,000 farmworkers, the growers claimed that these were isolated cases and there was no need for systemic reforms.
When a detective with the Collier County Sheriff’s Office testified in Congress that human trafficking in Florida agriculture was “probably occurring right now while we sit here” and the growers “isolate themselves from what is occurring, and benefit from what’s going on,” the growers insisted they were victims of a sophisticated public relations campaign ginned up by CIW.
And when CIW attempted to talk to the growers, they simply refused. During a 1997 worker hunger strike, one grower told CIW co-founder Lucas Benitez that industry would never meet the workers’ single demand for dialogue.
“Let me put it to you like this,” said the grower. “The tractor doesn’t tell the farmer how to run the farm.”
Even when CIW won penny per pound pay raises and code of conduct agreements with the four largest fast food companies in the world, the three largest food service companies, and finally, the largest organic grocer, the growers still stood in the way.
A Senate hearing convened by Senator Bernie Sanders and the late Senator Edward Kennedy revealed that the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange (FTGE), representing 90 percent of the state’s growers, went so far as to declare that any members who implemented the pay raise would be fined $100,000 for every worker who benefited. So millions of dollars in checks that buyers were cutting directly to the workers languished in escrow. An industry that had profited from 300 hundred years of forced labor in Florida’s fields wasn’t about to allow its workers—who have no right to organize, no right to overtime, and no right to bargain collectively—to receive a pay raise from its customers, much less win a seat at the food industry table.
But standing in the crowded field during the announcement of this unprecedented agreement was the vice president of the FTGE himself, Pacific CEO Billy Heller.
“Pacific truly came to the talks that led to today’s announcement with an open heart,” said Benitez. “Without that spirit of partnership, it wouldn’t have been possible to even talk about the kind of changes contemplated in this agreement, much less hammer out the concrete systems necessary to make those changes real and sustainable.”
Senator Sanders, who has visited Immokalee and held Congressional hearings to shed light on the workers’ struggle, saw the agreement as a model for the industry. “This historic agreement should finally put an end to the harvest of shame that has existed for far too long in Florida’s tomato fields,” he told me in an e-mail. “It is now past time for all tomato growers to participate in the penny-per-pound program and ensure that no tomato worker lives in extreme poverty or is forced into slavery.”
That vision is now shared by CIW and Pacific. With this agreement, a new standard for social responsibility and accountability in Florida’s tomato industry is set. There is no more room for denial, no more room for excuses. These two partners have finally opened the new chapter in Florida agricultural history that CIW has long been fighting for.
“The transgressions that took place are totally unacceptable today and they were totally unacceptable yesterday,” said Esformes. “Now is the time to ask responsible agricultural companies to join in the effort to bring positive change to our industry. It is an absolute that farmworkers must have the same protections as people working in the white-collar world.”