Between each December and May, Florida grows nearly the entire U.S. crop of fresh field tomatoes for our homes, restaurants and supermarkets. Although the tomato is essential produce, most consumers do not know, or do not care, that many of the farmworkers who harvest the crop are exploited and otherwise mistreated.
A federal case just ending in Fort Myers, in fact, shows that too many farmworkers, especially tomato pickers, are being held as slaves. Five Immokalee field bosses, all relatives, pleaded guilty to several charges of enslaving Guatemalan and Mexican farmworkers, forcing them to work and brutalizing them.
The 17-count indictment alleged that for two years, ringleaders Cesar Navarette and Geovanni Navarette kept more than a dozen men in boxes, shacks and trucks on their property. The workers were chained, beaten and forced to work on farms in North Carolina, South Carolina and Florida. Incredibly, the indictment shows that the men were forced to pay rent of $20 a week to sleep in a locked furniture van. They were forced to urinate and defecate in a corner of the vehicle.
To keep the workers obligated to them, the Navarettes devised drug, drink and food schemes to increase and guarantee the men's indebtedness.
A federal plea deal was entered, giving the two ringleaders 12 years and fines from $750,000 to $1-million each. Formal sentencing is at the end of the year.
The Coalition of Immokalee Workers conducted the initial investigation in this case and six other successfully prosecuted cases that have freed more than 1,000 field hands.
A major shame is that Florida's leading lawmakers, not to mention ordinary citizens, have rarely expressed outrage over such abuses, and even fewer have raised a finger on behalf of farmworkers. Former Gov. Jeb Bush and his labor emissary openly criticized the coalition for its work, and Gov. Charlie Crist has yet to show real interest.
Outsiders, such as former President Jimmy Carter, have had to come in and lead the fight. Now U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., is the most outspoken elected official in Washington to advocate for the cause of Florida farmworkers. He is a member of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.
Following the conviction of the Navarettes, Sanders said in a prepared statement: "I think most Americans would find it hard to believe that people in our country are pleading guilty to slavery charges in the year 2008, but that is what is going on in the tomato fields of Florida.
"While slavery is, of course, the most extreme situation in the tomato fields, the truth is that the average worker there is being ruthlessly exploited. Tomato pickers perform backbreaking work, make very low wages, have no benefits and virtually no labor protections.
"As a committee of the (labor committee), I intend to introduce legislation in the very near future which will end a loophole in current law which enables growers to avoid taking responsibility for what happens on their fields when workers are being enslaved."
Farmworkers are and always have been excluded from U.S. fair labor standards and are prevented from unionizing. The overwhelming majority of farms hire contractors, or crew bosses, to employ, pay, house and transport workers, thus freeing the growers of culpability for wrongdoing.
About the Navarettes' case, Coalition of Immokalee Workers member Gerardo Reyes told the Fort Myers News-Press: "The facts that have been reported in this case are beyond outrageous — workers being beaten, tied to posts, and chained and locked into trucks to prevent them from leaving their boss. How many more workers have to be held against their will before the food industry steps up to the plate and demands that this never — ever — occur again in the produce that ends up on America's tables?"
The ugly truth is that most Americans rarely think about the inhumanity of the process responsible for the fresh, inexpensive produce on their tables. Until consumers become sensitive to that process and to the plight of the laborers, the abuse and exploitation, even slavery, will continue.