It was the day after Thanksgiving 1960 when Americans were introduced to the term "Harvest of Shame." Edward R. Murrow's shocking documentary by that title cast television's bright new light on the harsh, degrading conditions faced by Florida's farmworkers. "We hoped that the pictures of how these people live and work would shock the consciousness of the nation," said Murrow's co-producer, David Lowe.
Though it made for memorable television, Murrow's searing expose ultimately did little to change the reality of farmworker life. For decades thereafter, Florida's farmworkers remained among the country's worst-paid, least-protected workers.
But on the 50th anniversary of the Harvest of Shame, in the tiny farmworker community of Immokalee — the location of several scenes from Murrow's groundbreaking documentary — a ray of hope began to emerge. On Nov. 15, 2010, after years of struggle, farmworkers with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and growers with the Florida Tomato Exchange (representing more than 90 percent of the Florida tomato industry) signed a pact to work together to build a more modern, more humane agricultural system.
Out of that agreement has grown the Fair Food Program, a unique collaboration among consumers, workers, growers and retail food companies that is premised on mutual respect and the verifiable protection of the rights and interests of tomato workers and growers in a manner that benefits the Florida tomato industry as a whole.
In short, the Fair Food Program is the breakthrough Murrow and Lowe hoped for half a century ago, and in the two years since its inception it has already begun to bear fruit. In the words of award-winning journalist and author Barry Estabrook (Tomatoland), the CIW's Fair Food Program has put the Florida tomato industry "on the road to becoming the most progressive group in the fruit and vegetable industry" today. But now, just as this historic cooperative effort has begun to take root, it has come under attack from the most unlikely of quarters, the U.S. Commerce Department.
Inexplicably, the Commerce Department is contemplating actions that would allow artificially cheap Mexican tomatoes — tomatoes that are kept cheap in part due to the extreme exploitation of Mexican farmworkers — to continue to undercut Florida production and undermine the first real progress in generations in our country's efforts to advance farmworkers' human rights. Doing so would likely spark a race to the bottom that could reverse the promising course being pursued by Florida's farmworkers and growers. This would be a precedent-setting approach that seriously draws into question the federal government's commitment to protecting the public interest in cases like this, as the law requires it to do.
The issue is entangled in complex trade laws but comes down to this simple matter: Sixteen years ago, U.S. tomato growers sought relief under our laws from imports of Mexican tomatoes that were being sold here at less than the cost of production. The government agreed with the facts and entered into an agreement with Mexican growers to try and get them to live by the rules.
But that agreement was never honored by the Mexican producers and never enforced in any meaningful way by the Commerce Department. On this uneven playing field, the Florida tomato industry is not only losing ground, but losing members, as more and more growers choose to close down production rather than bleed out slowly in a market rigged against their survival.
So today, the Florida tomato industry is asking our government to take a fresh look at the problem to ensure that tomatoes are fairly traded, while there is still a Florida tomato industry to make the request. And in June, we at the CIW joined the growers, Florida's agriculture commissioner, congressional leaders and others from across the country in asking the department to allow the original petition to be withdrawn and the current failed agreement to be terminated.
The CIW is supporting the efforts of the growers, because unlike tomatoes here in Florida, tomatoes in Mexico are still being produced and sold the old way — no questions asked. Permitting the dumping of Mexican tomatoes that may have been picked by workers subjected to gross human rights abuses — up to and including modern-day slavery — is to allow the Mexican tomato industry to set the low bar with regard to human rights, creating a powerful downward pressure on wages and working conditions just when the Florida tomato industry has embraced a more modern agricultural approach.
Morally, the United States should not be a party to such a race to the bottom. Legally, the public interest, the American public interest, does not allow it.
The CIW is engaged in a long, often difficult effort to build a brighter future for tomato workers. The Fair Food Program, while having already begun to fulfill its promise of a sustainable tomato industry that respects human rights, is still susceptible to being undermined by external threats.
Unfairly traded tomatoes are not the least of those. We implore policymakers in Washington to support U.S. tomato workers and their groundbreaking agreement with the growers, not to breathe new life into the dying Harvest of Shame.
Greg Asbed is a co-founder of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and the 2012 recipient of the Natural Resources Defense Council's Food Justice Award. He wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.