By Melissa Jane Kronfeld and Rachel Furst
The dazzling array of toppings behind the germ-proof glass at your local salad spot belies the slavery embedded in the supply chains that deposit our vegetables in the little plastic bins. Rising before dawn to beat the heat, yet still forced to work a minimum of 12 to 14 hour days in the blazing sun, farm workers confront an array of physical, economic, social, political, emotional and sexual traumas that make their form of trafficking unique in its multifaceted oppression.
Among the array of documented abuses committed against farm workers include theft, pesticide poisoning, heat exposure, substandard housing, and such inhuman working conditions as no breaks, no water, no bathrooms, and the use of physical violence as a means of coercion. Workers cannot afford to be fired for complaining about their conditions. The options are slim: lose your job or feed your family.
And for women working in the field sexual assault and rape is commonplace. Wherein 25 percent of women face sexual harassment in the workplace, 80 percent of women working on farms are victimized. And those that work alongside them can do little to help, fearing they might suffer the same fate or worse.
But here’s the part that should shock you the most: these farms are not just found in the jungles of Latin America, the lowlands of Southeast Asia, or the plains of Africa. These farms are right here in the United States. From the tomato fields of Florida, to the vineyards of California, and the pineapple orchards of Hawaii, a sub segment of agricultural workers – mostly migrants and other undocumented persons – exist as modern day slaves in the most democratic nation in the world.
The problem has become so extreme that in 2012 farm worker advocates filed a complaint with the United Nations calling the U.S. complicit in violating the human rights of these vulnerable populations.
Field Hands: Burying the Truth Under the Dirt
If we consider the definition of slavery to be, as author and activist E. Benjamin Skinner has stated to us in the past, working against your will with little or no pay under the threat of violence or other punishment, then the farmworkers of America can be considered among the most exploited groups of laborers in this country.
Formally abolished in the United States after the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution in 1865, the end of slavery meant, in large measure, freedom for the African and African American population who had served as a bonded agricultural workforce across the newly formed nation’s farmlands. But anyone familiar with the history of America knows the fight for African American freedom continued through to the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964; and for many, the struggle remains a reality today in the form of economic, political and social inequality. But the history of American farming in the post-emancipation era is a lesser known tale. And the silence of those who are now chained to our nation’s farms is deafening.
“[Slavery] still exists because society has let it exist; because there are powerful economic interests that benefit from this relationship of lack of power,” Judge Laura Safer Espinoza, Executive Director of the Fair Food Standards Council, tells us. Her organization seeks to uncover farmworker abuse, prosecute offenders, provide victim services, and recruit farm owners to commit to the organization’s zero tolerance policy for any form of mistreatment of employees.
But farm work remains hazardous nonetheless. The Department of Labor reports that one farm worker dies every day while on the job in the U.S., and hundreds more are injured every year. Farm workers also endure endemic wage theft, earning on average just $10,000 to $14,000 a year, even when working full time, and in many cases, more than full time. This ensures that a large and growing population of farm workers in America remain enslaved by impoverishment, with no hope for upward mobility and no means to provide a future for their children. The American dream, for many agricultural workers, amounts to nothing more than a unimaginable, inescapable nightmare.
With over two million farms across more than 920 million acres of land, regulating the 21 million documented farmworkers (a total of 15 percent of the U.S. workforce) in these vast and often remote locations is a complex and daunting task for the Department of Agriculture. And with the rise of ‘Big Farming’, the government increasingly prioritizes profitable production over human dignity and due diligence.
“There’s a corporate system that has been set up,” Angel Morales of the Student/Farmworker Alliance, a national movement of Millennials advocating on behalf of agricultural workers rights, tell us. “What used to be small farmers are now large agro-industry farms and the corporations that buy their produce. They place a downward pressure on the produce price; even though produce costs have increased for consumers, the cost of fruits and vegetables have been the same for corporations.
“The industry tries to exploit people because there is little regulation,” he adds. “The labor force is completely unchecked.”
As a result, an entire generation of Latin American workers, desperate for employment or duped into forced labor, now form the backbone of the largest, strongest and most powerful economic engine that the world has ever seen. Plucking, picking and packing thousands of pounds of produce a day, these workers cannot even feed themselves. Meanwhile, consumers remain blind to the juice of injustice that flows through the tomatoes they taste, the of wine they sip, and the fruits they slice.
Helpless in Hawaii
In 2011 authorities uncovered the largest case of human trafficking in American history deep in the pineapple orchards of Hawaii. Hundreds of Thai laborers, lured by the promise of higher wages, quit their jobs, abandoned their families and mortgaged their homes to pay their way to the U.S. But when the workers arrived, their passports were seized and they found themselves forced into servitude as ‘payment’ for recruiting fees totaling, in come cases, tens of thousands of dollars.
Threatened with physical violence, lacking the necessary work visas, and fearing deportation, the silent plight of these workers remained hidden for years behind the facade of a Hawaiian paradise. Restricted to squalid living conditions after long hours toiling under the hot island sun, arbitrary wage deductions for food and other expenses left the migrants working for little or no salary, rendering impossible the repayment of their debt.
Although the trafficking ring was exposed and the workers rescued, most were sent back to Thailand and the life they had sacrificed everything to escape.
Convicted in California
California farming has perfected the art of exploitative labor. From the Native Americans of the past to the Latinos of today, for some farmworkers in the West, California livin’ is anything but a ‘golden state.’ And with wine being California’s number one agricultural finished product, this is most apparent in the state’s vast vineyards.
Grape-picking season in California coincides with the highest temperatures of August, leaving field workers toiling in some of America’s harshest climates. Compounded by long night shifts (the fruit’s skin is sensitive to the sunlight of day) and a short harvesting season, workers are pushed beyond human limits to reap the largest yields possible.
With incredibly low labor and harvesting costs, selling wine upwards to $100 each, reaps unimaginable benefits for farm owners. But a deeply rooted culture of profit over people leaves an underclass grasping to find a way out of the weeds. In Napa alone, where there are more billionaires than unemployed, one can find agricultural worker encampments dotting the lush landscape just out of sight of the vineyards its residents tend, creating an economic apartheid unlike any other part of the state.
Fighting for Florida
Florida’s tomato farms have set the precedent when it comes to cases of modern day farmworker slavery. In just 10 years, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) – who represents about 4,000 of Florida’s agriculture workers – has identified 1,2000 slaves in the sunshine state. But the CIW is committed to changing this. An international coalition of activists and organizations, the CIW provides a voice for modern slaves through anonymous hotlines and nation-wide protests highlighting their unacceptable working conditions.
And progress has been made. As founding member Laura Germino tells us, “in the past six years, we have reached the gold standard of prevention of agricultural slavery on our Fair Food Program farms, through a market-based approach of supply chain transparency and focus on enforcement and remedy, backed by worker-driven education, monitoring, and auditing.”
The Coalition has teamed up with the Department of Justice and Judge Laura, to establish the Fair Food Program, a group of 14 corporations that have pledged to only buy produce from farms that treat their workers fairly.
“The growers commit to distribute an extra penny to their workers to supplement their wages and agree to implement the code of conduct on their farm,” the Judge explains. “This is a structural solution that attacks the root causes and conditions where slavery can flourish.”
“We have agreements with buyers and growers that include an enforceable zero-tolerance policy for agricultural slavery,” Laura adds, “meaning that if slavery takes place in the workplace, buyers no longer purchase from the supplier involved.
“The result has been the virtual elimination of labor trafficking in the FFP, a program which now spans seven states and three crops.”
Currently most major fast food chains and large supermarkets have joined the Fair Food Program (including Walmart, Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, McDonalds, the YUM Brands, Chipotle, Burger King, Aramark, Compass Group, Bon Appetit, Sodexo, and Subway). But glaring exceptions remain – including most notably Wendy’s (for which the CIW currently maintains a national boycott against), but also supermarket giants like Publix, Kroger and Safeway. Mega-markets like these often maintain full control over the food supply in rural or low populations-density areas (like parts of central Florida), and as a result, grocer choice is diminished, leaving little or no options for producers or consumers to participate in the fair food movement.
Freedom Farming: On The Front Lines of Fair Trade & Standards
Agricultural slavery is defeatable – and it’s because of activists & social justice influencers, like those we spoke with, that the movement is making the necessary strides to uplift thousands of farmworkers across the country from the bonds of servitude. But we all have a role to play.
“Millennials are the first generation of truly responsible consumers,” Laura tells us. “Millennials are people who believe that ‘sustainable food’ does not mean only local, or organic produce but also, produce harvested by workers free of human rights abuses.”
Judge Laura concurs. “We need an informed public that will demand of the places that sell food, that the food be purchased from farms that have worker human rights”
And Millennials, she believes, are that generation.
So let’s prove them right. Get involved. Start right now.
Only buy produce stamped fair trade. Request that your local grocery store or favorite restaurant buy from fair trade wholesalers or in-state farmers to keep your business. Deliver a letter to the manager of your local Wendy’s and ask them to demand their corporation sign the Fair Food standards act or boycott them until they do. But most importantly, tell someone you know about what you learned.
Agricultural slavery is something that not one of us can stand for, and it is an issue not one of us can ignore. Because it’s one we all take part in – each and every day. As actress and activist Eva Longoria notes at the end of the documentary film Food Chains, “if you eat, you are affected.”
Interested in learning more about agricultural slavery? Check out the work being done by Coalition of Immokalee Workers, the Fair Food Standards Council & the United Farm Workers. Watch the documentary Food Chains and Food Inc., or check out New York Times’ interactive look at American farming in the Twenty-First Century. Pick up the book Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit by Barry Estabrook or Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All American Meal by Eric Schlosser (then watch the documentary of the same name based on the book).
This is the fourth article in a 10 part series highlighting modern slavery and trafficking in the Twenty-First Century. Read Part One here, Part Two here & Part Three here. Check back with Millennial Magazine over the coming months to learn more about this critical issue and how you can join the movement to #EndSlaveryNow!