A delegation from the Coalition of ImmokaleeWorkers recently took time during its “Northeast Tour for FairFood” to visit The Nation offices in New York City. It was anhonor to meetwith them, to learn more about their work helping workers in the fieldsof Florida. We spent some time discussing how The Nation couldcontinue to expose the working and living conditions of migrant workersand advocate forneeded change.

Last Friday–just days after CIW’s visit–a Florida judge rendered his sentence on the state’s most recent slaverycase. CIW had helped the Department of Justice investigate what ChiefAssistant US Attorney Doug Molloy described as one of Southwest Florida’s”biggest, ugliest slavery cases ever.” There was shockingly littlecoverage of this outrage–even in Florida–where a slavery story shouldknock Governor Blagojevich right off the front pages. (The dedication ofreporter Amy Bennett Williams of the Fort Myers News-Press is a notableexception.)

The Navarrete family had pleaded guilty to holding twelve men on theirproperty from 2005 to 2007. They were beaten, chained and imprisoned in a truck, and forced tourinate and defecate in the corners. Two family members were sentencedto twelve years, and four were sentenced on lesser charges and willserve up to three years and ten months.

CIW worked with federal and local authorities during the prosecution andinvestigation as it has in seven Florida slavery cases over the pastdecade. Prior to escaping, the workers had listened to programming onlabor rights on CIW’s multilingual radio station–Radio Conciencia–which encouraged them that they wouldbe able to find help if they escaped. Some of the workers who then didescape made their way to CIW for assistance.

While it’s good to see some accountability for the practice of modernslavery, and the ongoing cooperation between CIW and prosecutors, thetolerance for slavery was all too evident in the wake of this trial. For one thing, Molloy told the Fort Myers News-Press, “We have anumberof similar–and ongoing–investigations.” He also said, “It doesn’thelp when people deny that [slavery] exists. That’s like throwinggasoline on the fire.”

But that’s exactly what seems to be happening when it comes to the stategovernment. Republican Governor Charlie Crist has remained silent onthe issue of slavery and this sentencing–including not returningcalls from The Nation–and his press secretary suggested that areporter contact Terence McElroy, spokesman for the Florida Departmentof Agriculture and Consumer Services which oversees the states’ farmsand labor contractors. McElroy seemed to dismiss the significance ofthe case and the existence of slavery, saying, “… You’re talking about maybe a case a year.” After apublic outcry– including responses from former President of Ireland MaryRobinson, AmnestyInternational USA, Florida ACLU and the Robert F. Kennedy Center forJustice and Human Rights–McElroy attempted to clarify his statementbut only made matters worse, describing slavery as “quite a rarity when a case pops up.”

First off, slavery doesn’t exactly lend itself to being exposed. Whenchained, beaten, shot at, and pistol-whipped–as has happened to manyof the 1,000 victims in seven known slavery cases prosecuted in Floridaover the past eleven years–it’s difficult for victims to bring thosecrimes to the light of day. “So this is really the tip of the iceberg,”CIW staff member Greg Asbed told me.

Also, McElroy is doing exactly what Molloy warns of by minimizing theproblem. As Asbed said, “You know, if this were happening in McElroy’sdepartment he wouldn’t say, ‘Well, it’s only one case annually ofworkers being forced to work at gunpoint for no pay…or it’s only onemurder…it’s a rarity.’ And you wouldn’t have Governor Crist refusingto comment. It would be a huge story and they would be forced to dealwith it. The fact is that those who minimize this problem see two typesof human beings–people who they think are like them, and then peoplelike these workers who they view as lesser human beings.”

CIW sent an openletter to Governor Crist–which I signed along with Eric Schlosser,Frances Moore Lappe and a slew of human rights and labor lawyers andorganizations–calling on him to renounce the comments made by McElroy;meet with CIW and federal officials who prosecute slavery; and demandthat the Florida TomatoGrowers Exchange (FTGE) allow the implementation of pay raises forworkers that tomato buyers have already agreed to and are payinginto escrow (see below)…which brings us to another recent victory forCIW.

Subway, the largest purchaser of tomatoes in the fast-food industry,agreed to apenny per pound pay raise for tomato workers. CIW had already struck similar dealswithMcDonald’s, Taco Bell and Burger King after long, hard fought campaigns. While a penny per pound doesn’t sound like a helluva lot, it results inabout a 75 percent wage increase for these workers–from $10,000annually to $17,000– raising their living and working conditions andmaking them less vulnerable to those who would enslave them. Already,approximately $1 million is being heldin escrow for the workers as they begin the second season with the dealsin place.

As I have written previously, theonly thing standing in the way of these workers and their millionbucks-plus is the FTGE. The FTGE represents 90 percent of the state’sgrowers and has threatened members who implement the penny per pounddeals with fines of $100,000 for each worker benefiting from the payraise. FTGE Executive Vice President Reggie Brown testified earlier thisyear at a Senate hearing chaired by Senator Bernie Sanders that thesedeals would result in buyers going to Mexico for their tomatoes. He’sdropped that argument since it’s the buyers themselves who arealready agreeing to pay the workers the extra penny. But he continuesto push a bogus legal argument–as the Miami Herald reported–that “they can’t participate because of legal issues with a thirdparty dictating the terms of its workers employment.” (As SenatorSanders noted at the hearing on Capitol Hill, “I gather that McDonald’sand [Taco Bell] have some money to hire some pretty good attorneys. Youmight want to reconsider the attorneys you are using and rethink thisissue”; Sanders also presented Brown with a letter from twenty-six legalprofessors specializing in labor law, including antitrust dimensions oflabor standards, writing that “the ostensible legal concerns of theGrowers Exchange are utterly without merit.”) It’s outrageous to nowread Brown feigning sympathy for the workers as he did to theHerald: “Ijust wish someone would be a little creative and find a way to get themoney to the workers. We would like to see the worker paid, but wecan’t do it,” he said.

As long as the FTGE continues to be obstructive, you can bet SenatorSanders will be on their case. In addition to his own fact-findingmission in the fields of Immokalee, and the hearing on the Hill, Sandersrecently single-handedly blocked tomato growers from getting $100million or so that they wanted to tuck away into a continuing resolutionbefore Congress recessed for the election.

“The Senator had a problem with a government bailout for folks who winkat slavery and can’t figure out a way to let other people pay theirpickers a penny a pound more for their back-breaking labor,” SenatorSanders’ press secretary, Michael Briggs, told me.

Sanders has spoken out not only on the pay issue, working, and livingconditions, but also about closing a loophole which allows growers touse independent labor contractors and escape any liability for theenslavement of workers who work their fields. McElroy claimed that no”legitimate grower” is involved with slavery, but in fact the FortMyersNews-Press reported that the victims in the latest slavery case workedon “farms owned by some of the state’s major tomato producers:Immokalee-based Six L’s andPacific Tomato Growers in Palmetto.”

Senator Sanders indicated in an e-mail to me yesterday that he’sdetermined to stay on top of these human rights issues: “It is beyondcomprehension that in the year 2008 slavery still exists in America. Ilook forward to working with the new administration and Congress tofinally end the scourge of modern slavery in the tomato fields ofFlorida. I will certainly advocate that every aspect of the businessesof those engaged in or indirectly benefiting from these scandalousactivities be gone over with a fine-tooth comb by appropriate federalofficials.”

As for CIW, in addition to its continued work to battle modern slavery,it’s now turning its attention to signing penny per pound agreementswith supermarket chains and food service companies. “With the agreementwith Subway now done, the fast food industry in the main has now spoken,and they are clearly saying to the Florida tomato industry that it’stime to turn the page. And so now we’re turning to the supermarket andfood service companies–like Kroger, Ahold, Safeway and Wal-Mart, andSodexo and Aramark–and asking them, ‘What are you waiting for? Ifyou buy tomatoes and you’re not looking to help improve conditions wherethey are picked, then you’re part of the problem.'”

With a track record of successes, and congressional allies like SenatorSanders fighting on tomato workers’ behalf in Washington, CIW willcontinue to play an invaluable role in improving the deplorable workingand living conditions that give rise to modern slavery.