Ending Slavery for Pennies

The exploitation of farmworkers should not be tolerated in Florida. It should not be tolerated anywhere in the United States. There are many social problems that are extremely difficult to solve. This is not one of them.
- Eric Schlosser, investigative reporter and author of Fast Food Nation

Yesterday, at a packed Senate hearing on working conditions for tomato workers, Senator Bernie Sanders asked Detective Charlie Frost, investigator for the human trafficking unit at the Collier County Sheriff's Office, "Do you believe that there is human trafficking happening in Florida agriculture as we speak right now?"

"It's probably occurring right now while we sit here," Frost said. "Almost assuredly it's going on right now."

"Detective, would you agree that in these slavery cases, there are people higher up the economic chain who are complicit and who benefit financially from what goes on?" Sanders asked. "[And if so,] do you believe we need to change the law to prevent the growers from shielding themselves from responsibility?"

"They isolate themselves from what is occurring, and they benefit from what's going on," Frost said. "We have to do something. We have to hold them accountable. This is occurring in their backyard, this is occurring in our fields, this is occurring in our country."

Not a single Republican committee member was on hand to hear this or any of the other testimony that described slavery in the US in 2008; worker conditions that are - as Eric Schlosser put it -- "like something you might encounter in the year 1868, not 2008"; or the loopholes in labor laws which allow systemic exploitation to continue. The "party of Lincoln" was simply MIA, while Sen. Sanders was joined by his Democratic colleagues, Senators Edward Kennedy, Richard Durbin, and Sherrod Brown.

Mary Bauer, Director of the Immigrant Justice Project at the Southern Law Poverty Center, testified that "for every [slavery] case we hear about, there are hundreds of other cases with similar kinds of power relationships... less dramatic but still incredibly oppressive circumstances that in effect amount to forced labor that are extremely common, and in fact close to the norm in many industries.... I do not believe that the American people would be comfortable if they knew how their food is being produced. They would not want to eat food that had been produced in this way."

The hearing revealed that even when multibillion-dollar corporations like McDonald's and Yum! Brands (whose subsidiaries include Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, KFC, Long John Silver's and A&W) attempt to do the right thing -- and pay the workers more -- powerful agribusiness interests have stood in the way. These corporations agreed to supplement the workers at a rate of an additional penny per pound for the tomatoes they purchase. Doesn't sound like much -- and it isn't for the corporations -- but it would result in about a 75 percent salary increase for workers who a 2001 US Department of Labor report described as "a labor force in significant economic distress... [with] low wages, sub-poverty annual earnings, [and] significant periods of un- and underemployment."

As some growers began to implement the Yum/McDonald's agreement -- an extra paycheck cut to the farmworkers by the buyers, not the growers, mind you -- the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange (FTGE), representing 90 percent of the state's growers, said any members who adopted this policy would be fined $100,000 per worker benefiting from the agreement.

Reginald Brown, Executive Vice President of the FTGE, was at the hearing trying, desperately, to justify opposition to the agreement as stemming from legal concerns.

Sen. Sanders entered into the record a letter from 26 legal professors specializing in labor law, including antitrust dimensions of labor standards, writing that "the ostensible legal concerns of the Growers Exchange are utterly without merit." (In fact, the experts concluded, the only real antitrust issue might be several growers agreeing amongst themselves to reject the deal.) He noted that McDonald's and Yum! Brands also entered letters into the record stating that there are no legal problems with the extra penny deal and that they want it implemented.

"I gather that McDonald's and Yum have some money to hire some pretty good attorneys," Sen. Sanders told Brown. "You might want to reconsider the attorneys you are using and rethink this issue."

Then Brown argued that it wasn't just the legal argument, but also that buyers would look to Mexico for cheaper tomatoes (even though it's the buyers who are offering to pay the extra penny). Brown said that the "tomato industry will go away, and Florida's economy will suffer."

It was as if Brown were acting out the very analogy that Lucas Benitez -- a former tomato worker, co-founder of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), and recipient of the 2003 RFK Human Rights Award -- drew in his testimony between the opposition farmworkers rights advocates face today and that which confronted abolitionists 200 years ago. (These early 19th century abolitionists were the predecessors to those who later founded The Nation in 1865.)

"Exactly 200 years ago, near this very spot, men in your position voted to outlaw the importation of slaves into the United States," Benitez testified through a translator. "That little known act did not end slavery, but it was an important step toward the eventual abolition of a brutal institution. At the time, passing that piece of legislation was complex, controversial and courageous. Those who supported the status quo argued that most slaves were happy with their lot, that they were certainly better off than where they came from, and that the economic collapse of US agriculture would surely follow."

Indeed, it's not too much of a stretch to view Brown and his cohorts as 21st century George Wallaces or Bull Connors, standing in the way of the progress of human rights in our own nation. Brown boasted of the workers who continue to return to the fields; of the "entry level job" tomato picking represents on the way towards achieving the American dream; of the "shock" that FTGE felt in response to the slavery cases -- cases Schlosser pointed out were never uncovered by the growers who work with the labor contractors, but by CIW - in the relatively small town of Immokalee; and, time and again, Brown pointed to Socially Accountable Farm Employers (SAFE) -- "an independent third party" that is auditing growers to make sure workers are treated with respect and paid fair wages. But Sanders revealed that two of the five members of the SAFE Board of Directors are Brown himself and Mike Stuart, President of the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association (FFVA). FFVA lists helping growers meet their labor needs while keeping costs down as one of its key responsibilities. Further, neither Brown nor Stuart reveal their positions in the industry on the SAFE website.

It's in this environment that a worker picks an average of two tons of tomatoes a day for about $50, or $10,000 - $12,500 annually (a Department of Labor figure inflated by including supervisory personnel); where much if not all of their salaries go towards paying for trailers where 8 - 10 workers live together; where complaints are met with threats, beatings or worse. And when these workers -- whether US citizens or immigrants, and witnesses testified that these issues apply to both -- are enslaved, or forced into debt-servitude, or beaten, or sexually harassed, or not paid, or having their families back home threatened, their access to help is far more limited than that of other workers. Bauer noted that they have no right to organize; no overtime pay; no federal minimum wage law on smaller farms or in short harvest seasons; exemptions to child labor laws; and state health and safety laws that exclude farmworkers. She said this isn't a Florida-only problem, it's the widespread result of "agriculture exceptionalism." Schlosser said that as recently as the 1950's Florida police would prosecute African-Americans under vagrancy laws and send them to the fields to work off the fines.

Both Senators Kennedy and Sanders said this is just the beginning of investigating these injustices. In his concluding statement, Sen. Sanders said a GAO audit of wage and hour records of the growers is needed; agriculture workers need to be covered under both the Fair Labor Standards Act and the National Labor Relations Act; changes need to be made to the federal trafficking statutes to address growers and others who are avoiding prosecution by remaining willfully blind to the abuses around them; anti-trust implications of the FTGE activities need to be examined; and "we need to make sure that slavery, servitude and other abuses in the Florida tomato industry continue to receive the attention both in and outside Congress that they deserve so that it is stopped once and for all."

As for Benitez, he's been a part of this struggle for decades. He recalled during a 1997 worker hunger strike a grower saying that they would never meet the workers' single demand for dialogue. "'Let me put it to you like this,'" the grower said. "'The tractor doesn't tell the farmer how to run a farm.'" Benitez continued, "That's how they've always seen us, just another tool and nothing more. But we aren't alone anymore. Today there are millions of consumers with us willing to use their buying power to eliminate the exploitation behind the food they buy. And a new dawn for social responsibility in the agriculture industry is on its way. With the help of Congress and with the faith that the complicated will be made clear under the purifying light of human rights, today, just as it was 200 years ago, we will witness the dawn of that new day."

Katrina vanden Heuvel has been The Nation's editor since 1995 and publisher since 2005. Greg Kaufmann is a freelance writer residing in his disenfranchised hometown of Washington, DC.

Copyright (c) 2008 The Nation

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