At The Nation we’ve tried to keep up on the good work of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, an organization comprised chiefly of Latino, Haitian and Mayan Indian immigrants working in Immokalee, Florida as tomato pickers.
Founded in 1993 as a “community-based worker organization” the organization has won inspiring victories, achieved international notoriety and established fruitful collaborations with an array of grassroots groups, notably the Student-Farmworker Alliance.
CIW’s most well-known triumph came in 2005 after a four-year boycott that included a 10-day hunger strike and two cross-country “Taco Bell Truth Tours” when Yum! Brands — the corporation that owns Taco Bell, Pizza Hut and Long John Silver’s — agreed to all the CIW’s demands, most importantly a one penny per pound increase in the wages of tomato pickers and worker collaboration on the drafting and enforcement of a code of conduct.
This victory helped alleviate some of the worst pay injustices facing migrant workers in the region but dramatic abuses continue in Immokalee, the tomato capital of the United States, where as much as 90 percent of the fresh domestic tomatoes are harvested.
According to what Douglas Molloy, the chief assistant US attorney based in Fort Myers, told Barry Estabrook in an excellent article in the recent issue of Gourmet magazine, Immokalee has another claim to fame: It is “ground zero for modern slavery.”
As Estabrook reports, involuntary servitude–slavery–is alive and well in Florida. Since 1997, law-enforcement officials have freed more than 1,000 men and women in seven different slavery cases. And those are only the instances that resulted in convictions. Frightened, undocumented, mistrustful of the police, and speaking little or no English, most slaves refuse to testify, which means their captors cannot be tried.
Now, the CIW is focusing its efforts on convincing Florida Governor Charlie Crist — who wields tremendous public and political influence over the state’s agricultural industry — to condemn these most egregious human rights violations.
Specifically, the campaign is asking Crist to:
1. Publicly condemn the existence of modern-day slavery in Florida;
2. Commit the full power of your office to immediately and comprehensively address the plague of abuse and forced labor in Florida’s fields by:
a. Meeting with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and federal officials who prosecute these cases, and
b. Demanding that the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange renounce its opposition to implementing the agreements that socially responsible fast food and supermarket companies have signed to ensure better pay and working conditions for tomato pickers, so as to eliminate the conditions that give rise to forced labor.
Add your voice to this anti-slavery call today by clicking here, where you can learn more about the petition campaign, send an email or fax to the governor, and forward the information to friends.
It’s also worth thinking about how to wean ourselves of slave-picked fruit. In the warm months, the best solution, when possible, is to buy seasonal, local, and small-scale. But what about in winter? So far, Whole Foods is the only grocery chain that has signed on to the CIW’s 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. Another way to go during the cold months is to buy locally produced hydroponic greenhouse tomatoes, including cluster tomatoes still attached to the vine.
Both of these options are, of course, expensive so the best course is to eat as if airplanes don’t exist — save the tomatoes for when it’s warm and try to appreciate radishes, beets and their ilk when it’s cold.