Tomato pickers' Fla. plight a growing concern

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At most grocery stores you can find tomatoes labeled as organic, vine-ripened or hydroponic.

But would you reach for that bright red tomato if it had the label "picked under deplorable working conditions?"

If you're buying tomatoes in winter, there's a good chance the fruit comes from Florida and that it was picked by migrant workers, including what federal officials say may be modern-day slaves.

Like the movement to buy fair-trade coffee, the spotlight is now on the struggles of tomato pickers on Florida fields. From November through spring, Florida growers provide more than 80 percent of the shipments of tomatoes sold in the United States.

The plight of migrant workers in the United States is not new. But, in this month's Gourmet Magazine, writer Barry Estabrook puts the focus on Florida tomato workers like Mariano Lucas Domingo, held captive by his crew boss for 21/2 years, beaten and locked up when he couldn't work, his paychecks taken from him.

"They call it human trafficking or indentured servitude, but when you strip everything away it's slavery," said Douglas Molloy, a chief assistant U.S. attorney based in Fort Myers.

Today, Just Harvest USA, an organization dedicated to building a more just and sustainable food system, is leading a delegation of small farmers and sustainable food activists to the South Florida tomato fields to observe the living and working conditions of farm workers there.

"The time is right for consumer consciousness not only to look at the environment ... but also the rights of workers all along the supply chain who provide us with our food," said Damara Luce, director of Just Harvest USA, based in California.

In response to recent publicity, Giant Eagle, the largest supermarket chain in the region, plans "to follow up with our [Florida-based suppliers] directly to learn more about their practices and guidelines," spokesman Dick Roberts said.

Even under ordinary circumstances, tomato farm workers perform back-breaking labor for rock-bottom wages.Tomatoes must be picked by hand at just the right stage: Pick them too soon and they'll never turn red, but pick them too late and they won't survive their trips to the far reaches of the United States.

As Mr. Estabrook recounts, workers receive about 45 cents per 32-pound basket of tomatoes, but if conditions aren't perfect, the tomatoes cannot be picked.

For some, working conditions are much worse. Since 1997, Florida law enforcement officials have successfully prosecuted seven cases of modern-day slavery. Most recently, in December 2008, Mr. Molloy and others prosecuted Cesar Navarrete and several members of his family for enslaving farm workers, including Mr. Domingo.

"There are many cases out there that we'll never know about, because slaves don't report themselves," Mr. Molloy said in an interview. "For the most part, slaves are in the country illegally, so they're terrified of being deported."

The Florida Tomato Growers Exchange has expressed strong disapproval of involuntary servitude and has established an independent nonprofit, Socially Accountable Farm Employers (SAFE), to certify that businesses in the tomato industry are free of coerced labor, child labor, discrimination and other abuses.

The effectiveness of SAFE is debatable. Two large Florida farms currently certified by SAFE were among those at which Mr. Navarrete forced his victims to work for his own monetary gain, according to the Fort Myers News-Press.

Neither individual growers nor the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange has been receptive to increasing wages or improving conditions for tomato pickers.

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers, headquartered in the South Florida farmlands, has been running a Campaign for Fair Food, which urges corporate food industry leaders that make large purchases of tomatoes to agree to pay a penny a pound more for tomatoes, which is passed directly to workers; to a code of conduct on their suppliers to prevent abuses; and to make sure that workers' rights are protected and that they receive their money, said Julia Perkins of the coalition.

The coalition organized a three-year boycott against Taco Bell restaurants that was joined by several church organizations, including the Presbyterian Church (USA).

The boycott ended in 2005 when Taco Bell's parent company, Yum Brands Inc., signed the Fair Food agreement. McDonald's quickly followed, along with a number of other companies. In September 2008, Whole Foods Market joined them, the first supermarket chain to do so. Now, change seems to be building.

"That extra penny a pound means little to the farmer and less to the corporations; but, "it's very significant in the life of a farm worker," said Ms. Luce of Just Harvest USA.


China Millman can be reached at cmillman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1198.


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