In the Trenches and Fighting Slavery (The Nation)

By Katrina Vanden Heuvel

A delegation from the Coalition of Immokalee Workers recently took time during its "Northeast Tour for Fair Food" to visit The Nation offices in New York City. It was an honor to meet with them, to learn more about their work helping workers in the fields of Florida. We spent some time discussing how The Nation could continue to expose the working and living conditions of migrant workers and advocate for needed change.

Last Friday--just days after CIW's visit--a Florida judge rendered his sentence on the state's most recent slavery case. CIW had helped the Department of Justice investigate what Chief Assistant US Attorney Doug Molloy described as one of Southwest Florida's "biggest, ugliest slavery cases ever." There was shockingly little coverage of this outrage--even in Florida--where a slavery story should knock Governor Blagojevich right off the front pages. (The dedication of reporter Amy Bennett Williams of the Fort Myers News-Press is a notable exception.)

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

CIW worked with federal and local authorities during the prosecution and investigation as it has in seven Florida slavery cases over the past decade. Prior to escaping, the workers had listened to programming on labor rights on CIW's multilingual radio station--Radio Conciencia--which encouraged them that they would be able to find help if they escaped. Some of the workers who then did escape made their way to CIW for assistance.

While it's good to see some accountability for the practice of modern slavery, and the ongoing cooperation between CIW and prosecutors, the tolerance for slavery was all too evident in the wake of this trial. For one thing, Molloy told the Fort Myers News-Press, "We have a number of similar--and ongoing--investigations." He also said, "It doesn't help when people deny that [slavery] exists. That's like throwing gasoline on the fire."

But that's exactly what seems to be happening when it comes to the state government. Republican Governor Charlie Crist has remained silent on the issue of slavery and this sentencing--including not returning calls from The Nation--and his press secretary suggested that a reporter contact Terence McElroy, spokesman for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services which oversees the states' farms and labor contractors. McElroy seemed to dismiss the significance of the case and the existence of slavery, saying, "... You're talking about maybe a case a year." After a public outcry-- including responses from former President of Ireland Mary Robinson, Amnesty International USA, Florida ACLU and the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights--McElroy attempted to clarify his statement but 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. When chained, beaten, shot at, and pistol-whipped--as has happened to many of the 1,000 victims in seven known slavery cases prosecuted in Florida over the past eleven years--it's difficult for victims to bring those crimes 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 the problem. As Asbed said, "You know, if this were happening in McElroy's department he wouldn't say, 'Well, it's only one case annually of workers being forced to work at gunpoint for no pay...or it's only one's a rarity.' And you wouldn't have Governor Crist refusing to comment. It would be a huge story and they would be forced to deal with it. The fact is that those who minimize this problem see two types of human beings--people who they think are like them, and then people like these workers who they view as lesser human beings."

CIW sent an open letter to Governor Crist--which I signed along with Eric Schlosser, Frances Moore Lappe and a slew of human rights and labor lawyers and organizations--calling on him to renounce the comments made by McElroy; meet with CIW and federal officials who prosecute slavery; and demand that the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange (FTGE) allow the implementation of pay raises for workers that tomato buyers have already agreed to and are paying into escrow (see below)...which brings us to another recent victory for CIW.

Subway, the largest purchaser of tomatoes in the fast-food industry, agreed to a penny per pound pay raise for tomato workers. CIW had already struck similar deals with McDonald'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 in about a 75 percent wage increase for these workers--from $10,000 annually to $17,000-- raising their living and working conditions and making them less vulnerable to those who would enslave them. Already, approximately $1 million is being held in escrow for the workers as they begin the second season with the deals in place.

As I have written previously, the only thing standing in the way of these workers and their million bucks-plus is the FTGE. The FTGE represents 90 percent of the state's growers and has threatened members who implement the penny per pound deals with fines of $100,000 for each worker benefiting from the pay raise. FTGE Executive Vice President Reggie Brown testified earlier this year at a Senate hearing chaired by Senator Bernie Sanders that these deals would result in buyers going to Mexico for their tomatoes. He's dropped that argument since it's the buyers themselves who are already agreeing to pay the workers the extra penny. But he continues to push a bogus legal argument--as the Miami Herald reported--that "they can't participate because of legal issues with a third party dictating the terms of its workers employment." (As Senator Sanders noted at the hearing on Capitol Hill, "I gather that McDonald's and [Taco Bell] have some money to hire some pretty good attorneys. You might want to reconsider the attorneys you are using and rethink this issue"; Sanders also presented Brown with a letter from twenty-six legal professors specializing in labor law, including antitrust dimensions of labor standards, writing that "the ostensible legal concerns of the Growers Exchange are utterly without merit.") It's outrageous to now read Brown feigning sympathy for the workers as he did to the Herald: "I just wish someone would be a little creative and find a way to get the money to the workers. We would like to see the worker paid, but we can't do it," he said.

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

"The Senator had a problem with a government bailout for folks who wink at slavery and can't figure out a way to let other people pay their pickers a penny a pound more for their back-breaking labor," Senator Sanders' press secretary, Michael Briggs, told me.

Sanders has spoken out not only on the pay issue, working, and living conditions, but also about closing a loophole which allows growers to use independent labor contractors and escape any liability for the enslavement of workers who work their fields. McElroy claimed that no "legitimate grower" is involved with slavery, but in fact the Fort Myers News-Press reported that the victims in the latest slavery case worked on "farms owned by some of the state's major tomato producers: Immokalee-based Six L's and Pacific Tomato Growers in Palmetto."

Senator Sanders indicated in an e-mail to me yesterday that he's determined to stay on top of these human rights issues: "It is beyond comprehension that in the year 2008 slavery still exists in America. I look forward to working with the new administration and Congress to finally end the scourge of modern slavery in the tomato fields of Florida. I will certainly advocate that every aspect of the businesses of those engaged in or indirectly benefiting from these scandalous activities be gone over with a fine-tooth comb by appropriate federal officials."

As for CIW, in addition to its continued work to battle modern slavery, it's now turning its attention to signing penny per pound agreements with supermarket chains and food service companies. "With the agreement with 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's time to turn the page. And so now we're turning to the supermarket and food service companies--like Kroger, Ahold, Safeway and Wal-Mart, and Sodexo and Aramark--and asking them, 'What are you waiting for? If you buy tomatoes and you're not looking to help improve conditions where they are picked, then you're part of the problem.'"

With a track record of successes, and congressional allies like Senator Sanders fighting on tomato workers' behalf in Washington, CIW will continue to play an invaluable role in improving the deplorable working and living conditions that give rise to modern slavery.