Sanders: Farm Worker Exploitation Must be Exposed

One day after a federal grand jury indicted six people for enslaving farm workers here, Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said the Senate should hold a hearing on labor conditions at farms where "people are being exploited ruthlessly."Sanders held two days of meetings with the community-based Coalition of Immokalee Workers, which has struggled to improve working and living conditions for workers whose wages that have been stagnant for more that two decades. According to the 17-count indictment hand

IMMOKALEE, Fla. January 18 - One day after a federal grand jury indicted six people for enslaving farm workers here, Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said the Senate should hold a hearing on labor conditions at farms where "people are being exploited ruthlessly."

Sanders held two days of meetings with the community-based Coalition of Immokalee Workers, which has struggled to improve working and living conditions for workers whose wages that have been stagnant for more that two decades. According to the 17-count indictment handed up Thursday, crew bosses allegedly beat workers, locked them in trucks and threatened physical harm if the workers left their jobs.

"No worker in America should be treated the way tomato pickers in Florida are treated," Sanders said. A member of the Senate labor committee, Sanders said he had discussed a hearing into the farm workers plight with Senator Edward M. Kennedy, the panel chairman. "I have talked to Senator Kennedy and he is sympathetic to doing a hearing," Sanders said.

Sanders also urged Miami-based Burger King to join other fast-food chains that have raised payments to pickers by a penny a pound. McDonald's Corp. and Yum Brands (the owner of Taco Bell) have worked with the coalition to significantly improve workers' wages. Sanders also asked the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange to withdraw a threat to slap a $100,000 fine on any grower that accepts the extra penny-per-pound from food chains. The letters from Sanders to Burger King CEO John W. Chidley and to Reggie Brown, executive vice president of the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange, also were signed by Chairman Kennedy, Assistant Senate Majority Leader Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Senator Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio).

General working conditions on the Florida farms have changed little since 1960, when Edward R. Morrow exposed the horrendous treatment of farm laborers in the broadcast documentary Harvest of Shame. "Tragically, almost 50 years later, not much has changed," Sanders said.

"In an era of globalization, the American people are becoming more and more concerned, not only about the quality of goods they consume, but about the conditions facing those who produce those goods. In my view, the American consumer does not want the tomatoes they eat to be picked by workers who are grossly mistreated and underpaid. This must not happen in the United States of America in 2008."

The Florida Tomato Growers Exchange executive has referred to the one-cent pay raise as "pretty much near un-American," Sanders noted. "Well, let me tell you what's un-American. Making workers pick nearly two and a half tons of tomatoes just so they can earn the minimum wage is un-American. Treating workers like slaves is un-American. Not providing decent housing for workers is un-American. Allowing workers to earn a decent living and treating workers with respect is not un-American. Indeed, it is what America is supposed to be about."

"As poverty increases and the middle class shrinks, millions of American workers are being forced into a race to the bottom. They are working longer hours for lower wages while losing their health insurance, pensions and other benefits. We must address their plight not only from a moral perspective, but with the understanding that if we look the other way, and accept the terrible exploitation they are suffering, every American worker is in danger as that race to the bottom accelerates.

"I hope this issue can be voluntarily dealt with by the tomato growers, the companies that purchase the products and those who pick the tomatoes. If not, this is certainly an issue that Congress should address legislatively," Sanders said.

To read the letters sent by Senator Sanders and his colleagues, click here.