In all likelihood…Your tomatoes are picked by slaves

Yes, I’m talking about the United States.  In Florida, since 1997, there have been seven slavery rings that have been prosecuted by the Department of Justice, freeing over 1,000 workers.  These employers are guilty of beating their workers, chaining them, keeping them in debt and imprisoning workers in U-Hauls for being sick or unable to work.

We still have a ways to go, in Immokalee, Florida, the tomato capital, between December and May, as much as 90 percent of the fresh domestic tomatoes we eat come from south Florida.

According to Douglas Molloy, the chief assistant U.S. attorney based in Fort Myers, Immokalee has another claim to fame: It is “ground zero for modern slavery.”

The beige stucco house at 209 South Seventh Street is remarkable only because it is in better repair than most Immokalee dwellings.  For two and a half years, beginning in April 2005, Mariano Lucas Domingo, along with several other men, was held as a slave at that address. At first, the deal must have seemed reasonable. Lucas, a Guatemalan in his thirties, had slipped across the border to make money to send home for the care of an ailing parent. He expected to earn about $200 a week in the fields. Cesar Navarrete, then a 23-year-old illegal immigrant from Mexico, agreed to provide room and board at his family’s home on South Seventh Street and extend credit to cover the periods when there were no tomatoes to pick.

Lucas’s “room” turned out to be the back of a box truck in the junk-strewn yard, shared with two or three other workers. It lacked running water and a toilet, so occupants urinated and defecated in a corner. For that, Navarrete docked Lucas’s pay by $20 a week. According to court papers, he also charged Lucas for two meager meals a day: eggs, beans, rice, tortillas, and, occasionally, some sort of meat. Cold showers from a garden hose in the backyard were $5 each. Everything had a price. Lucas was soon $300 in debt. After a month of ten-hour workdays, he figured he should have paid that debt off.

But when Lucas-slightly built and standing less than five and a half feet tall-inquired about the balance, Navarrete threatened to beat him should he ever try to leave. Instead of providing an accounting, Navarrete took Lucas’s paychecks, cashed them, and randomly doled out pocket money, $20 some weeks, other weeks $50. Over the years, Navarrete and members of his extended family deprived Lucas of $55,000.

To put their back-breaking labor into prospective, for every 32 pound basket of tomatoes workers get approximately 40 to 50 cents, this rate has not risen much from what workers were paid 30 years ago. On a good day you could possibly make $50 if you picked a ton of tomatoes, that’s only if you work very fast.  But there are many pitfalls in achieving that goal.

If it rains, you can’t pick. If the dew is heavy, you sit and wait until it evaporates. If trucks aren’t available to transport the harvest, you’re out of luck. You receive neither overtime nor benefits. If you are injured (a common occurrence, given the pace of the job), you have to pay for your own medical care.

The fast food industry contributed greatly to the poor wages paid to workers for the tomatoes that were bought by Burger King & McDonald’s to name a few.  It wasn’t til last year that Burger King finally caved to a salary increase.

Astonishingly, Burger King, until May 29, 2008, refused to go along with a deal that will cost them less than $300,000 annually; last year, the corporation raked in $2.23 billion in revenues.

The Campaign for Fair Food, has put pressure for the past four years on YUM! Brands, owner of Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, KFC, Long John Silver’s, and A&W. Yum! agreed to the one-cent raise in 2005 and, importantly, pledged to make sure that no worker who picked its tomatoes was being exploited.

But the program faces a major obstacle. Claiming that the farmers are not party to the arrangement, the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange, an agricultural cooperative that represents some 90 percent of the state’s producers, has refused to be a conduit for the raise, citing legal concerns.

The only way to ensure you are buying slave-free tomatoes is to buy them locally or from Whole Foods, which is the only grocery chain that has signed on to the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) Campaign for Fair Food, which means that it has promised not to deal with growers who tolerate serious worker abuses and, when buying tomatoes, to a pay a price that supports a living wage.  The tomatoes picked in Mexico, laborers have even worse conditions than our workers face here in the US.

It’s hard to believe in this day and age we are still prosecuting people for slavery.