"My back is broad, but its a'hurting…"

by Katie Pizzuto on March 5, 2009

in Agribusiness

maar-tomatoslaves608I’m sure by now you’ve all wiped your consciences clean of any historic guilt you may have carried around in regards to this country’s barbaric era of slavery. Well, I consider it my job to occasionally sling a little mud on that squeaky-clean conscience of yours, not because I think my readers are secretly trading slaves in some sort of underground market, but because I think many of my readers are unaware that sometimes, something as simple as eating an out-of-season tomato means you are supporting an existing slave system in the US. Yeah. The US.

The simple fact is that, if you’ve gone to the grocery store and bought a tomato this winter, it may very well have been picked by someone who lives in virtual slavery. Between December and May almost 90% of the fresh domestic tomatoes we eat come from southern Florida, and Immokalee is at the heart of it all. Not far from Naples, Immokalee is the tomato capital of the US. Despite this glorious title, though, the per capita income there is about $8,500 a year and one third of its people live below the poverty line. Its second claim to fame, apparently, is being ground zero for modern slavery. Most of us live behind a comfortable veil of ignorance when we eat out-of-season fruit, spoiled by the year-round selections in our grocery stores. But most of us don’t know who’s picking them for us.

A couple of years ago, a Guatemalan slipped across the border in order to make money to send home to his ailing parent. According to what he had been told, he was expecting to earn about $200/week in the tomato fields of Immokalee. Apparently, an illegal immigrant from Mexico, who was living there, had agreed to provide him room and board at his house and extend credit to cover the times when no tomatoes could be picked. But his “room” was the back of a box truck, shared with 3 other workers. It had no running water, no toilet and obviously no air conditioning to battle south Florida heat. Despite being promised room and board, he got charged $20/week for 2 meager meals. Cold showers with a garden hose in the backyard were $5 each. Everything had a price tag on it. Before he knew it, he was $300 in debt (other workers lived in a ten-foot-square space with mattresses and paid $2,000/month in rent—same as a small condo in Naples).

He figured he could pay it off after a month of ten-hour workdays, but was threatened violence if he ever tried to leave. His paychecks were taken from him and cashed, and he was randomly given a little pocket change. Over the years, he had been deprived of $55,000. If he was ill and couldn’t work, he was beaten and locked in the back of the truck. Others are slashed with knives, tied to posts and shackled in chains. Since 1997, officers have freed more than 1,000 people from “involuntary servitude” in Florida. But because they are not only frightened but obviously undocumented and afraid of police (not to mention that they can’t speak English) they refuse to testify.

It’s not a reasonable assumption that if you eat a fresh tomato in winter it’s been picked by the hand of a slave—it’s a fact. So far, Whole Foods is the only chain that has signed agreements, promising not to deal with US growers who tolerate abuse. Problem is, as bad as conditions are here, in Mexico (where we also get winter tomatoes from) conditions are worse.  If you simply can’t do without a damned tomato in the winter, which in my opinion is a poor, sad imitation of a tomato anyway, do your conscience a favor and check the origin label on it. Better yet, do your palate a favor as well and simply wait for summer you spoiled brat!

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Linsey March 5, 2009

we also have similar happen here – a lot of eastern europeans come and do land work here with gang masters for hardly any money and then are screwed over for rent etc

its appalling!

there was actually was a case where some chinese were cockle fishing here – the tide came in too quickly and several drowned – and all because they were being exploited as cheap labour


2 The Wine Commonsewer March 6, 2009

I’ll try this in IE this time.

The unintended consequences of locking down the border are sometimes far reaching…..


3 The Wine Commonsewer March 6, 2009

interesting that your site won’t take comments in Firefox this morning.


4 Katie Pizzuto March 6, 2009

@TWC…hmm, weird as I always use Firefox! Will check it out.

@both…we can only blame border patrol for so much. If legislation kept the farm owners on the up-and-up when it comes to wages and fair labor perhaps actual citizens would be filling those jobs. Eh, there are plenty of directions to point fingers at, who are we kidding? My only point is, skip the fucking tomato for the winter months…they’re flavorless anyway. Save a tomato, save a life 🙂


5 The Wine Commonsewer March 6, 2009

Still not liking my FF comments. Fortunately, I copied before clicking…..

I’m just saying that if labor wasn’t driven underground as a consequence of having to sneak in for something as nefarious and horrific as finding work, then the exploitation would be much more difficult.

It’s like the stoner who comes home and finds his stash gone. He can’t call the cops. Same thing with the illegals, who they gonna complain to? The Labor Board? The Border Patrol? The Police?

There isn’t a panacea but if there was a mechanism in place that allowed labor to flow to where it was needed with a minimum of inconvenience and hassle, there would be a whole lot less of this kind of stuff.

Besides, getting people to skip winter tomatoes is like asking them to stop drinking white zin. 🙂

This is making me want to watch that old Charles Bronson movie, Mr Majestyk.


6 Kyle March 9, 2009

I still feel that if immigration was kept above board, ie. work visas and green cards there would be so much less of this problem. I dont want to come across as anti-immigration, but illegal immigrants are called “illegals” for a reason, we can’t protect ourselves from their “bad apples” nor can we protect the hard working migrant workers from our own “bad apples”.
As far as needing more legislation to protect them, how about we just take the handcuffs off of law enforcement, and bitch slap those Judges that are afraid to hand down an “unpopular” sentence.


7 beth - the wine school March 10, 2009

Human trafficking and slavery is a devastating reality throughout the world today. And whether a slave is “illegal” or “legal” skirts the point of a human rights issue gone terribly wrong. and immigration laws are only PART of the entire picture. Kevin Bales has written an excellent book on the subject with thoughtful ideas for the layman and the activist alike to get knowledgeable and involved – it’s called Ending Slavery.

Thanks Katie for bringing the Immokalee issue to fore.

It is important to realize from where our food comes.


8 Katie Pizzuto March 10, 2009

Excellent points, Kyle. My request for legislation wasn’t so much to protect the illegals but to create a system of fair trade in general. Agribusiness WANTS these tomatoes on your shelf in order to make you happy so you’ll spend your greenbacks. They aren’t too busy worrying about HOW the tomatoes get to you as long as they get there, so they look the other way. No American citizen will work these fields because they know the conditions are detestable and the money is shit. Like I said there are MANY directions in which to point fingers…no one thing is to blame.


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