Since 1997, the Justice Department has prosecuted seven cases of slavery in the Florida agricultural industry — four involving tomato harvesters — freeing more than 1,000 men and women. The stories are a catalogue of horrors: abductions, pistol whippings, confinement at gunpoint, debt bondage and starvation wages.
Thankfully, those enslaved workers may be among the last found in Florida’s tomato fields. Today, virtually all Florida tomato growers have joined the Fair Food Program, which includes a code of conduct outlawing debt bondage and requiring humane conditions of labor and a more livable wage. Shade stations, toilets and drinking water are appearing in the fields, and educators are spreading word about the code to the harvesters.
This miracle didn’t come about overnight. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), an organization of migrant workers based in Immokalee, Fla., has strived for 19 years to upgrade working conditions and eradicate slavery in the state’s tomato industry. Pressure on growers, whose profit margins have shrunk over that period, was only marginally successful; growers feared that pay increases raising the price of tomatoes would drive buyers to Mexico or other places for cheaper produce. But when the coalition changed tactics and demanded that tomato buyers join the Fair Food Program, reforms came thick and fast. Profitable and image-conscious retailers, pressed by consumers and civil society groups, saw the market and publicity benefits of ethical buying practices.