It was an unlikely place to hear Abraham Joshua Heschel quoted, and the rabbi’s words came from an unlikely messenger.
At a news conference on a farm outside of Immokalee in southwest Florida, Jon Esformes, operating partner of the fourth-generation, family-owned Pacific Tomato Growers—one of the five largest growers in the nation with more than 14,000 acres in the US and Mexico—declared, “In a free society, few are guilty, but all are responsible.”
And with that he announced an agreement with the 4000-member Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) to implement a penny per pound pay raise—which stands to increase workers’ annual earnings from about $10,000 to as much as $17,000—and establish a code of conduct that includes an external complaint resolution system, shade and protective equipment in the fields, and a worker-to-worker education process on their rights under the new agreement.
“For us, you wake up and you realize that maybe this is something we could have done yesterday, but I am certainly not going to wait until tomorrow,” said Esformes.
For those who have followed CIW’s decade-long fight to raise farmworkers’ sub-poverty wages and remedy oppressive working conditions—including slavery—this agreement marks the moment when a wall of denial maintained by the Florida agricultural industry came tumbling down.
When the Department of Labor reported “sub-poverty annual earnings,” the growers denied it, claiming tomato harvesters averaged $12-$18 per hour.
When the USDA described farmworkers as “among the most economically disadvantaged groups in the US” with “poverty more than double that of all wage and salary employees,” the growers maintained that they were performing a service by providing needed entry-level jobs.
When the Department of Justice worked with CIW to prosecute seven slavery operations in Florida over the last fifteen years, resulting in the liberation of over 1,000 farmworkers, the growers claimed that these were isolated cases and there was no need for systemic reforms.