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For Florida’s Tomato Pickers, 45 Cents Means a Backache

3p Contributor | Monday September 21st, 2009 | 2 Comments

This is the this is the second post in a series on the business of sustainable agriculture by the folks at Bon Appétit Management, a company that provides café and catering services to corporations, colleges and universities. To read the first post, click here.

By: Maisie Greenawalt, Bon Appetit Management

What does slavery look like in the United States in the year 2009? After visiting Immokalee, Florida, I know.

As we drove down a highway surrounded by swamps and passed signs warning people of panthers, I looked out the window trying to find evidence of the atrocious working conditions of tomato pickers about which I had read. We sped by orange groves and tract housing but no tomatoes.

Entering Immokalee, I saw a modern-day ghost town – dusty streets full of potholes, boarded up businesses, and rundown trailers. Had I been there at 4:30 a.m., it would have been a different scene. Each morning thousands of workers gather in the parking lot of an abandoned store to load onto buses that take them upwards of an hour away to the tomato fields. Calling Immokalee a city is really a misnomer. It’s a labor camp and, as a federal prosecutor called it, “ground zero for modern-day slavery.”

Our first stop was the offices of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW). This grass-roots group has led the “penny per pound” campaign asking large tomato buyers to pay one cent more per pound so that that money can be passed to workers. Entering the CIW office, was like stepping into history. There were the signs and figures I’d seen carried at rallies in many video clips. And, there was Lucas Benitez, one of the group’s founders, who I had had the pleasure of hearing speak at Slow Food Nation last summer and was quite moved by. He described a group of relatively recent immigrants who, without even speaking fluent English, have moved corporate America to take action. Who, using the power of their stories, have mobilized thousands of college students, reached c-level executives and been heard by Congress. Who have worked tirelessly in hopes of gaining a penny!

After introductions, we were taken on a walking tour. The streets were empty save for the chickens and vultures walking around freely (yes, vultures, really). Those broken-down trailers were not vacant. Each one is home to up to twelve people each paying about $50 a week in rent. Do the math; it’s cheaper to live in Manhattan. Our guides, CIW members and a translator from the Student Farmworker Alliance, talked about the difficulty of living in such a tight space with one bathroom and a small kitchen. About rushing home after the buses return to wash off the pesticide residue stuck to your body. About how before CIW opened a food co-op, predatory store owners would raise prices because their customers had no other options.

We passed the empty lot that until recently housed the box truck where workers were literally held captive by their “employers.”  In that case, CIW helped the workers escape and prosecutors were able to gather evidence to send the offenders to prison for 12 years for “enslaving and brutalizing migrant workers.” In fact, seven cases have been prosecuted involving hundreds of workers. That empty lot is for sale – for $300,000! When I asked how empty land in such a desolate place could command such a high price, I was told that any property within walking distance of where the buses pick up is extremely valuable because workers can’t afford cars. I was beginning to get a picture of what slavery looks like.

Later Lucas drove us to the middle of nowhere to see the tomato pickers at work. CIW isn’t welcomed into the fields by the growers so we climbed through bushes to get a view from a distance. I was stunned. It’s hard to describe how tough it is to pick tomatoes. Workers are paid by the bucket so they have to work fast – really fast. Their hands are in constant motion. They then hoist the 32 pound bucket onto their shoulder and literally run to the truck to turn in their tomatoes and get a token showing they’ve earned $0.45. The supervisors receive the tomatoes while standing atop the trucks so the workers throw the full bucket over their heads to reach the supervisor. I don’t think I could pick, carry and throw one bucket much less the 15 an hour necessary to equal federal minimum wage.

The rest of our time with CIW was spent around a table discussing how we can use Bon Appétit Management Company’s purchasing power to make change. We talked about paying a fair premium for this hard work, protecting the workers from lightning, pesticides and heat exhaustion, and changing a culture that views workers as farm equipment instead of human beings.

After a day and a half, we had come up with a code of conduct further reaching than any previous agreement. We had a new model for how business can be done in a way that respects workers. We’d made real progress. Still, when I asked if CIW knew of any people currently being held against their will, I was told of two workers who were recently rescued only to ask to return to their captors after their families in Mexico had been threatened. That’s what slavery looks like.


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