A shameful tradition continues

Debt slavery in Florida’s tomato fields remains an issue

By Cal Colgan | gargoyle@flagler.edu

Every week, students from schools all over the country hungrily rush to their cafeterias and bistros, munching on subs and sandwiches and chomping on cheeseburgers containing slabs of juicy, red tomatoes. Parents buy the rose-colored fruits to force-feed their stubborn children. Health nuts purchase organic tomatoes for homemade dishes of pasta or couscous.

And every day, barrels of tomatoes are shipped all over the country from Florida’s tomato fields to be taken for granted by the insatiable mouths of middle class Americans.

Few people realize that the majority of those ripe ruby fruits they purchase were picked after hours of back-breaking labor amidst threats and occasional beatings: the typical symptoms of a shameful social disease that was supposed to have been eradicated over 140 years ago.

Slavery exists in Florida’s tomato fields.

The town of Immokalee is the heart of the tomato-growing industry. In his March 2009 article for Gourmet Magazine, Barry Estabrook writes that although Immokalee is only an hour northeast of Naples, the second-wealthiest metropolitan area in the nation, the town stands in stark contrast to its southern counterpart.

With a population that is 70 percent Latino, a large portion of the town’s workers are migrant tomato-pickers.

“Per capita income [for Immokalee] is only $8,500 a year,” Estabrook said. “One-third of the families in this city of nearly 25,000 live below the poverty line. Over one-third of the children drop out before graduating from high school.”

It was in the midst of this squalor that the Coalition of Immokalee Workers was born. The C.I.W. Web site states that the coalition is a “community-based worker organization.”

Since 1993, the C.I.W. has campaigned for higher wages and better working conditions for the residents of the Southwest Florida town, the Sunshine State’s largest farm worker community.
Ironically, perhaps, the most recent documented case of modern-day slavery in the tomato-picking industry occurred in Immokalee.

“For two and a half years, beginning in April 2005, Mariano Lucas Domingo, along with several other men, was held as a slave [at a house on South Seventh Street],” Eastabrook said.
Lucas is a Guatemalan immigrant in his thirties who crossed the border illegally so he could find work to send money home for a sick parent. Expecting to earn about $200 a week in the tomato fields, he was hired by then 23-year-old Cesar Navarrete, an illegal Mexican immigrant who agreed to give Lucas room and board at his family’s South Seventh Street home. Navarrete also told Lucas that he would extend credit to cover the periods of the year tomatoes could not grow.

The reality of the situation turned out to be far different.

Lucas soon discovered that his “room” was the back of a box truck that he shared with two or three other workers. Because there was no plumbing, Lucas and the other occupants of the truck had to urinate and defecate in a corner, prompting Navarete to lower Lucas’s pay by $20 a week.
Eastabrook said Navarrete “also charged Lucas for two meager meals a day . . . Cold showers from a garden hose in the backyard were $5 each. Everything had a price.”

As a result of Navarrete’s conniving company-boss system, it wasn’t long before Lucas was $300 in debt. But when Lucas suggested to Navarrete after a month of ten-hour workdays that he should have already paid off his debt, Navarrete threatened him, telling Lucas he would beat him if he ever tried to leave the farm.

And instead of calculating what Lucas had supposedly paid off and what he actually earned, Eastabrook said, “Navarrete took Lucas’s paychecks, cashed them, and randomly doled out pocket money . . . Over the years, Navarrete and members of his family deprived Lucas of $55,000.”

During those two and a half years, Lucas was not allowed to take a single day off. “If Lucas became ill or was too exhausted to work,” Eastabrook said, “he was kicked in the head, beaten and locked in the back of the truck. Other members of Navarrete’s dozen-man crew were slashed with knives, tied to posts, and shackled in chains.”

Lucas finally escaped on Nov. 18, 2007, and Navarrete and his brother were each sentenced to 12 years in prison. But the depravity of the Navarrete family is not an isolated case. It is the seventh documented case of slavery rings in Florida’s tomato fields. From 1997 to 2007, these seven cases have involved more than 1,000 men and women being held in some form of involuntary servitude.

The Palatka 2007 slavery case hits even closer to St. Augustine. According to the C.I.W. Web site, Ron Evans was sentenced to 30 years in federal prison for operating a slavery ring, and his wife and son were sentenced to 20 years and 10 years, respectively.

“Operating in Florida and North Carolina,” the Web site says, “Ron Evans recruited homeless U.S. citizens from shelters across the Southeast, including New Orleans, Tampa and Miami, with promises of good jobs and housing.”

As some of the homeless workers had alcohol and drug addictions, Evans also sinisterly lured them to his Palatka and Newton Grove, NC labor camps with promises of alcohol and crack cocaine, which he would then deduct from their pay, along with food and rent. The homeless individuals, says the C.I.W. Web site, were soon in a state of perpetual debt.

“In Florida, Ron Evans worked for grower Frank Johns,” the C.I.W. Web site says. “Johns was 2004 Chairman of the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association, the powerful lobbying arm of the Florida agricultural industry.”

Such despicable acts on the part of field bosses often go ignored by growers such as Johns. As late as April of last year, Reginald L. Brown, vice president of the Florida Tomato Growers exchange, told a U.S. Senate committee that “Florida’s tomato growers abhor and condemn slavery,” and maintained that any instances of involuntary servitude are isolated cases by private growers and not the commercial tomato industry.

But Lariza Garzón begs to differ.

A member of the National Farm Worker Ministry and the Youth and Young Adult Network, Garzón, 26, has been involved in raising awareness about the plight of farm workers since 2004. She has worked with local groups such as the C.I.W., state groups such as the Farm Worker Association of Florida, and national groups such as the Farm Labor Organizing Committee to fight for humane working conditions for our nation’s farm workers.

Garzón maintains that modern-day slavery in Florida’s tomato fields is common.

She said a tomato company will typically hire “a crew leader so that [the company] can wash [its] hands of the rest of what happens to the workers. The crew leader is the immediate supervisor of the worker.”

Garzón said crew leaders are responsible for the physical abuse of workers and other symptoms of slavery, but that sometimes the tomato growers themselves are the culprits.

“Because of the crew leader system, farm workers are more vulnerable [to exploitation and slavery] than workers in other areas,” she said.

Those farm workers that aren’t slaves still labor for miniscule wages. The C.I.W. won industry-wide raises in farm workers’ pay from 13 to 25 percent in 1998, bringing the tomato-picking piece rate back up to the level it was in 1980. In 2001, the group began a boycott of Taco Bell, followed by other companies in the food industry like McDonald’s and Burger King. The C.I.W. demanded that the companies pay their workers a penny more per pound of each tomato they pick.

But although the C.I.W. won promises of a commitment to better working conditions on the part of these companies, conditions in Florida’s tomato fields still remain deplorable. The Ft. Myers News-Press said in a March 12 article that although the companies agreed to the pay increase, the Florida Tomato Grower’s Exchange has refused to pay tomato pickers directly, instead paying extra wages into an account that never reaches the workers. And the C.I.W. claims the average farm worker in Immokalee is still well below the poverty line.

“If it’s not called slavery, it’s called exploitation,” Garzón said.

Conditions in Florida fields may seem hopeless, but awareness and help on behalf of migrant farm workers is growing. Organizations like Harvest of Hope have joined the fight.

Phil Kellerman, 53, founded the organization in 1997 out of an inheritance he received from his social worker grandmother. Since its founding, H.O.H. has given over $714,000 to migrant farm workers and their families. According to the organization’s Web site, the money is for “repairs to vehicles, housing, utilities, medical services and bills, food, clothing, funeral expenses and tuition for migrants students attending college.”

Kellerman said he and his brother, Ed, 56, senior lecturer for the Dial Center for Written and Oral Communication at the University of Florida, have helped at least 3,500 individual cases involving almost 20,000 farm workers.

Recently, H.O.H. organized a benefit concert for migrant farm workers here in St. Augustine. The three-day music festival, lasting from March 6 to 8, involved 141 bands and had at least 17,000 people coming through the gates. Over 80 percent of the proceeds will be used for services for migrant farm workers, and 10 percent of that 80 percent went directly to educational services for migrant students in Florida.

The fight against modern-day slavery in Florida has continued as well. On March 25th, Gov. Charlie Crist met with representatives of the C.I.W. Crist agreed to meet with the representatives after members of the C.I.W. traveled to Tallahassee and protested the governor’s two years of refusal to meet with the group by reenacting the instances of the Navarrete case.

Crist said that he would publicly address the issues raised by the representatives, which included calling on growers to improve working conditions for tomato pickers and cracking down on modern-day slavery in the tomato fields.

Finally, it appears that the state government is shining light on the shadowy specters of slavery and exploitation. But more needs to be done if we are to overcome the dark and dastardly characteristics of the agricultural industry.

Garzón believes there needs to be an easier path to citizenship for working immigrants who have been in the U.S. for several years. In this way, many migrant workers would not be lured into low-wage jobs from questionable growers and crew leaders. She also said there needs to be reform in labor laws that apply to farm workers, as well as higher wages and better benefits for them.

Above all, she said, we must reform the food industry.

“Agriculture companies need to take more responsibility for what happens to the workers. The crew-leader system needs to stop.”

Modern-day slavery and economic exploitation will not end in Florida’s fields by government action alone. Individual citizens need to take action against the industries that are condoning and perpetuating these ruthless, inhuman acts. It is time we realized that every purchase we make has political implications; and it is up to us to decide whether the price of tomatoes is worth the shackles.

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