A Story of Modern-Day Slavery
Published: Wednesday, October 23, 2013
Updated: Wednesday, October 23, 2013 16:10
A woman wipes the sweat off her brow and pauses for a second. This is the fourteenth hour she’s been working out in the field, and her arms and back ache. Although she hasn’t taken a break once, she doesn’t dare pause more than another second longer, for fear of being harassed by her supervisor.
In fact, she fears her supervisor more than anything because he sexually harasses her nearly every day. If that’s not enough, when she goes home in one more hour—dirty and sweaty and physically exhausted—she has to share the trailer home she lives in with eight other men and women just like her. She lives the life of a typical farm worker in Immokalee, Fla., today. You can call her Maria. She picks tomatoes for a living, and she lives in modern day slavery.
Did you know slavery was still alive and well in the United States? I sure didn’t until I heard Gerardo Reyes speak at a Real Food Challenge conference in Minneapolis a couple of weeks ago. I thought slavery was over, something that we abolished after the Civil War. I thought holding people against their will, making them work back-breaking hours and literally shackling them together was just something terrible from our history. I didn’t know people are working in slave-like conditions here in the United States, right now.
Reyes told me otherwise. He used to pick tomatoes and other fruit on farms in Florida until his boss refused to pay him, week after week. The tomato industry relies on farm workers like Reyes to hand pick tomatoes in their fields, yet these farm workers are often outrageously abused and paid sub-poverty wages. Many of the farm workers are illegal immigrants and don’t speak much English, so they just keep quiet about their working conditions, for the fear of being deported or physically abused even more.
I went to this conference in the first place because I’m interested in how students at other colleges are making their campuses healthier and more sustainable by changing the food in their dining halls. So I was surprised when many of the conversations there started to revolve around workers’ rights and “food justice.”
I quickly realized if you want to talk about healthier school lunches, buying local, or making our food system better in any way, you need to talk about the invisible people behind the scenes: farm workers. Better yet, you need to talk to a farm worker.
Reyes is now a member of the Coalition for Immokalee Workers. He and other farm workers in the coalition have been working together to raise awareness about their working conditions, and they have recently been gaining the support of tomato growers and large food corporations in Florida.
Of the five largest fast-food corporations in Florida, Taco Bell, McDonald’s, Burger King and Subway have all committed to CIW’s “Fair Food Program,” in which they pay just a penny more per pound of tomatoes to the farm workers and purchase only from tomato growers who treat their farm workers better under a new Fair Food Code of Conduct. Gerardo Reyes said Wendy’s is the only one of the five that has yet to agree to the commitment.
Reyes’s story made me think, how can our food system ever be healthy or sustainable when some of its most valuable workers don’t even have basic human rights? These farm workers and their stories have for a long time been invisible to most of us.
We always hear from doctors, celebrity chefs and other “experts” about how to eat healthy and go “green.” But is it “healthy” to eat a tomato grown at the expense of other people’s basic human rights? Is it “sustainable” to rely on the exploitation of illegal immigrants to keep the prices of our fruits and vegetables low? These are questions that no one is going to answer, unless farm workers can join us in the conversation.
Want to know more? Check out the Coalition for Immokalee Workers website at http://ciw-online.org/.
Michael is a senior majoring in crop and weed science.