Pennies a Bucket Don't End Slavery for Florida Pickers

Reggie Brown was upset. As executive vice president of the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange, he was before a U.S. Senate committee in April to dispute charges of slavery and human trafficking leveled at tomato growers by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, what Brown called "a purported labor organization." There's nothing "purported" about the South Florida-based organization ( other than the status of its mostly Latino, Haitian, and Mayan Indian membership of migrants. Their employers often don't consider them quite human. More like purported human beings.

They pay them accordingly. Assuming the picker gets work during the morning auction where growers pick their field hands for the day (the same cattle-auction method showed on Edward Murrow's "Harvest of Shame" documentary 48 years ago), the picker, until recently, was making 45 cents per 32-lb bucket of tomatoes. The rate was little changed from what it was 30 years ago. Taking inflation into account, the wage was 75 percent lower than in 1978. To make Florida's minimum wage of $6.79 an hour, the picker would have had to pick and haul 15 32-lb buckets in an hour, or 480 pounds. To make $50 for the day, he'd have to pick and haul 111 buckets, or 3,550 pounds of tomatoes. That's 1.77 tons.

It took two years and mediation by the Carter Center to convince McDonald's in 2007 to pay pickers 1 penny more per pound. It took another year to convince Burger King to do the same (that agreement was reached in late May), after Burger King had hired spies to infiltrate a student organization backing the pickers. Burger King said the extra penny will cost the company an extra $300,000 a year. One of the three equity firms that control most of Burger King's stock is Godlman Sachs Capital Partners. That company's CEO is Lloyd C. Blankfein. His total compensation in 2007, according to the Securities and Exchange Commission, was $70.3 million, or about $300,000 a day in a 235-day work-year. In other words, giving the 10,000 tomato pickers in Florida their first raise in 30 years works out to the equivalent of a single day's compensation for just one CEO in Burger King's shareholder food-chain. And they're calling that a victory for the tomato pickers. Don't count on it.

Before the raise, the typical Florida tomato farmworker earned from $10,000 to $12,500 a year, right around poverty-line territory, or what Brown termed even then "competitive wages" in his Senate testimony. But wait. The cost of the trip to and from work is deducted from the picker's paycheck. So is the cost of food and housing. Debts add up quickly. Contractors love indebted workers. It indentures them. For those undocumented workers who got to the United States by paying a smuggling fee, they have that debt to pay off, too. "We used to own our slaves," one Florida farmer told Murrow in 1960. "Now we just rent them." Nothing has changed.

The raise may improve matters slightly. But not if the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange, which controls 90 percent of the state's tomato picking market, has its way. McDonald's buys barely 1.5 percent of Florida's tomato crop, Burger King a bit more. Brown in his Senate testimony fretted about the legal problems of differentiating between tomatoes picked for those companies and tomatoes picked for other buyers: "The critical fact is that no one can identify which worker should receive an additional payment, nor can the correct payment be calculated." Of course it can. The Growers Exchange can be the agent that sets the higher 77 cent-per-bucket rate (let alone the more just $1-a-bucket rate) regardless of who's buying the product. But "given the fact that the growers are not mandated to participate in the extra-penny program," Brown concluded, "and based on the facts as we know them, it would not be rational, reasonable or in the best interest of the growers to join the program." Translation to pickers: Human rights have nothing to do with the bottom line, so good luck getting your higher wages.

Still, Reggie Brown was upset. "It is outrageous to have slavery happening in Florida or in any other state. However, charges that tomato growers have enslaved workers are false and defamatory," he said. "On numerous occasions, we have asked for any evidence that would substantiate these allegations against growers of Florida tomatoes and have received none." He's right about growers. But growers hire crew chiefs and bosses to insulate themselves from lawbreaking beneath their own nose. In two cases in 1999, 10 individuals in Florida were sentenced to prison for enslaving farmworkers -- including the enslavement of women and girls in brothels. In August 2001, a Fort Pierce crew leader was sentenced to four years in prison on enslavement charges. Last year a farm labor boss in East Palatka got 30 years in prison for scamming homeless people into working for him (with booze and crack) and indebting them.

On Jan. 17, the Justice Department announced the indictment of six Immokalee contractors: "According to the 17-count indictment, Cesar Navarrete and Geovanni Navarrete beat, threatened, restrained and locked workers in trucks to force them to work for them as agricultural laborers. The defendants underpaid the workers and imposed escalating debts on them, threatening physical harm if workers left their employment before their debts had been repaid." When it comes to Florida's farmworkers, you wouldn't know that 2007 marked the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade. Raise or no raise.

© 2023 Pierre Tristam