Farmworkers bring tales of modern-day slavery to Asheville

By Wally Bowen

ASHEVILLE, N.C. — While enlightened consumers across the U.S. shopped for perfect tomatoes at Whole Foods last November, in Immokalee, Fla. three enslaved farmworkers locked inside a tomato delivery-truck kicked open a ventilation hatch, escaped, and brought to light a story of violence and exploitation at the heart of America’s food chain.

Since the farmworkers’ escape last November, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) has uncovered more than 1,000 similar cases of enslavement in Florida’s agricultural industry.

Last Friday (Oct. 10), CIW members brought this evolving story of made-in-the-USA slavery to Asheville, along with a national “Campaign for Fair Food” they hope will end the violence and exploitation that shadows every American kitchen, grocery store, restaurant and fastfood chain.

Last January, two crew bosses were indicted for allegedly enslaving more than a dozen farmworkers for two years, including the three who escaped from the locked truck last November. The indictment alleged that the farmworkers were forced to pay rent of $20 a week to sleep in a locked furniture van, with no place to relieve themselves except a corner of the vehicle. The workers were also routinely chained, beaten and forced to work on farms in the Carolinas and Florida.

Just last month, the two bosses pled guilty to federal charges and plea-bargained 12-year sentences, which are expected to be levied before the end of this year.

From the tomato fields to the streets of Asheville

On a cool, overcast Friday afternoon in downtown Asheville last week, a dozen CIW members handed out “Campaign for Fair Food” leaflets to locals and tourists near the Subway sandwich shop on Battery Park Avenue. Subway and Chipolte are the latest corporate targets of the CIW campaign, which has so far secured agreements with Burger King, Whole Foods, McDonalds, and Yumm Brands, owner of Taco Bell, KFC, Pizza Hut, and A&W.

After the leafletting, CIW tour members recounted the origins of the coalition and presented details of the “Campaign for Fair Food” to a small gathering of local activists and supporters at Firestorm Cafe.

CIW leaders Gerardo Chavez and Leonel Perez, assisted by translator Meghan Cohorst, explained how the U.S. agriculture industry is exempt from the National Labor Relations Act, thereby exposing farmworkers to violence, wage-theft and exploitation.

In 1993, when the Immokalee workers began organizing, tomato pickers were paid 40 to 45 cents for each 32-pound bushel bucket. This was the same wage the workers were paid in 1978, Chavez and Perez said.

Since 1995, CIW has pressured for farmworkers’ rights via three general strikes – each involving 3,000 workers – plus a 230-mile protest march by 500 workers in 2001 to the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association headquarters. Their demands were simple: a penny per pound wage increase and more humane working conditions.

“We are the workers putting food on the table for the rest of this country,” he said, “yet sometimes we don’t have the money to put food on our own table. These big corporations have tremendous buying power. They buy bulk, and they buy year-round. But they never use this power to help the workers,” Chavez said.

But 2001 also marked a major shift in CIW’s strategy, from pressuring growers alone, to pressuring the ultimate beneficiaries of the corrupt system: the big corporate chains which use their massive buying power to squeeze price concessions from growers, said Chavez and Perez.

To change this reality, CIW organized teach-ins, protests, and consumers boycotts against Taco Bell in 2001. Four long years later, Taco Bell agreed to the penny-per-pound wage increase and more humane working conditions. Since then, Burger King, McDonalds and KFC have followed suit.

Last month, Whole Foods agreed to the “Campaign for Fair Food” standards, which include a code of conduct for growers and a pledge to maintain a dialogue with both workers and growers.

Farmworkers find opening as corporations go ‘green’

The Whole Foods victory, said Chavez, signals another shift in CIW’s campaign strategy: using companies’ claims around “green” business practices to shame them into respecting the human rights of farmworkers.

Companies like Whole Foods or Chipotle, which boasts a “food with integrity” philosophy, usually cite three concerns around “sustainability” and “green” practices, said Chavez.

“They talk about animal rights and the proper treatment of animals. They talk about organic ingredients and the environment. And they talk about supporting small farmers,” Chavez said. “But rarely do we hear any discussion of the farmworkers or the people working in the packing plants,” he said.

“Why are the workers always outside the circle of conversation on sustainability? It is not enough to have a conversation about sustainability and then leave the workers out,” he said.

The contemporary invisibility of farmworkers is rooted in racism, Chavez believes. “American agriculture first exploited the African slaves, then it was the poor whites and the African-Americans. And now the new face of farm labor is us: the Mexicans, the Guatamalans and the Haitians,” he said.

This exploitation will continue, he said, as long as the workers remain invisible, or “as long as we are seen as tools” of industry “or as second and third-class individuals.”

CIW leaders said their most potent tool for securing basic human rights is the “power of consciousness” among consumers and business leaders.

“We are not looking for sympathy,” Chavez said. “We are only looking for respect for the dignity of our work. This is not about helping farmworkers. It’s about a sacred connection between us and the food that arrives on your table,” he said.

At its core, however, this consciousness is about economic justice. Describing years of farmworkers toiling 10-14 hours year-round, Chavez said: “What we’re looking for is for them to give back to us what they’ve stolen from us for so long.”

Corporate buyers must recognize a new relationship with farmworkers, he said. “We are not children. We are businessmen and businesswomen. What we have to sell is our labor, but you can’t put a price on the dignity of workers. In all of this, we define a dignified life,” he said.

CIW goes to Capitol Hill

CIW’s got a boost in visibility last January with a visit by U.S. Bernie Sanders, who returned to Washington and enlisted fellow Senators Edward Kennedy, Richard Durbin, and Sherrod Brown to press Burger King to agree to the penny-per-pound wage increase.

Sanders was also instrumental in having the U.S. Senate’s Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee hold a hearing on what he called America’s new “harvest of shame” last April 15.

In an interview with The Nation magazine, Sanders described the working conditions of Immokalee’s farmworkers: “The norm there is a disaster, and the extreme is slavery. And this is taking place in the United States of America in the year 2008.”

For more information, visit the Coalition for Immokalee Workers’ website at: END

Rebekah Anderson, a UNC-Asheville senior and member of Students for Conscious Consumption, tests the weight of a full 32-pound tomato bucket. On a good day, an energetic worker can pick 125 buckets – about two tons of tomatoes – and earn tickets worth about $50, said members of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW).