It is hard to believe that this is America in 2008. It seems more like Upton Sinclair's turn of the century Chicago stockyards or Edward R. Murrow's Harvest of Shame of 1960. But it is today that the tomato pickers of Immokalee, Florida, toil under oppressive, retrograde conditions.
Thousands of immigrant farmworkers can be found in Immokalee during the winter tomato harvest. They arrive at pick-up points before dawn and are typically dropped off after dusk.
They are paid an average of 45 cents for every 32-pound bucket of tomatoes picked, a wage that hasn't much budged for a generation.
These are people desperate to support family members back home in their native Mexico, Guatemala and every other abjectly poor place nearby. They are exploited, as they have always been. They are vulnerable to violence from smugglers and crew chiefs and being cheated of the pittance they earn, as they have always been.
If government was born in part to tamp down the evil impulses of man, then why has it forsaken the men and women who harvest our food? Why has their plight been determinedly overlooked by law and leader alike?
At an aging trailer park, tomato pickers are charged $350 a week to rent a small, deteriorating trailer, according to former farmworker Leonel Perez, who is now an advocate with the nonprofit Coalition of Immokalee Workers. But there's no limit to the number of people who can sleep there, so nine or 10 men usually share it, Perez says. There is no shower or air conditioning inside.
On Monday the CIW will drop petitions signed by tens of thousands of people at the doorstep of Burger King headquarters in Miami. Burger King Corp. has refused to join with other fast food giants to pay workers an additional penny per pound of tomatoes. Yum Brands Inc., which includes Taco Bell and Pizza Hut, and McDonald's Corp. signed agreements with the CIW to provide that extra penny, a sum that would substantially raise the wages of the pickers. But Burger King, to its shame, has refused.
Yet even if Burger King signed on to the Campaign for Fair Food tomorrow, the penny would not find its way to the tomato pickers. Reggie Brown of the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange admitted in congressional testimony that his group has threatened every tomato grower member with a $100,000 fine for participating in the penny-per-pound program, effectively shutting things down.
Yum and McDonald's are holding the extra money in escrow waiting for the Growers Exchange to exhibit some semblance of humanity. But that isn't likely. Only days ago, Brown smugly sat in a Senate subcommittee hearing telling Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., that his growers are "progressive" employers paying Immokalee farmworkers an average of more than $12 per hour.
Sanders held his anger, but he knew better. He had visited Immokalee, seen conditions, talked to workers and knew that the hours appearing on pay stubs are often far less than those actually worked. By shorting the official hours the growers make it appear that pickers earn a healthy hourly wage for their piecemeal work. They don't.
There is a cancerous grower-government conspiracy that allows such modern-day servitude. Farmworkers are explicitly excluded from the protections of the National Labor Relations Act. They are not protected from being fired if they try to organize a union. If legal problems arise, federally funded legal services programs are barred from representing the undocumented. Their poverty and desperation has made them helpless, but the law has facilitated it.
Brown and those of his ilk are just doing what they're allowed to get away with. Like they've always done. Like they will always do, unless Congress changes the calculation and takes the action it should.