If you live in the United States and you eat fresh tomatoes in the wintertime, you’ve almost certainly tasted a tomato that was picked by a slave.
“That’s not an assumption. That’s a fact,” reveals U.S. District Attorney Douglas Molloy to former Gourmet magazine contributing editor Barry Estabrook in Estabrook’s book, Tomatoland. Molloy is a veteran government prosecutor with more than a decade of experience dealing with crime in Immokalee, Florida, a town at the center of Florida’s tomato industry. And he calls Immokalee “ground zero for modern day slavery.”
Roughly 90 percent of the slicing tomatoes sold in the winter in the United States come from industrial farms in the Sunshine State. To ensure they survive the long journey from balmy Florida to places as far away as Detroit or Seattle with nary a dent, the perfectly round, perfectly red winter tomatoes that line supermarket shelves and feed fast food restaurant customers in northern states in December are actually picked while green and hard. Later, these unripe tomatoes are gassed en masse in warehouses with ethylene — the same gas tomato plants produce naturally when their fruits are ripening — to turn them prematurely red. (If you’ve ever wondered why supermarket tomatoes in winter taste vaguely like tomato-colored wood pulp, this common industry practice would be a big reason why.)
Tomatoes are big business in Florida. Florida farmers ship about one billion pounds of tomatoes out of the state each year — a major source of income for the state. Yet in Florida, industrial tomato farmers’ profits are under constant threat. Though Florida is one of the few states in the U.S. where the climate is naturally warm enough to grow tomatoes in the wintertime, in many other ways Florida’s environment is downright inhospitable to the tomato.
Florida’s sandy soil lacks nitrogen, an element tomatoes depend on in large quantities for survival. So farmers in Florida pump their fields full of artificial, petroleum-based fertilizers to keep their plants alive. When the price of oil rises, so does the price of fertilizer, taking a bite of an industrial tomato farm’s profits.
Florida’s constantly humid air welcomes fungi that attack tomatoes; its mild winters allow insect pests that eat to thrive. As a consequence, Florida tomato farmers spray their crops with tons of expensive — and toxic — herbicides and pesticides. And all this investment in the expensive tools of industrial agriculture’s chemical warfare can be wiped out in one night, with a single hard freeze. One in January 2010 destroyed nearly the entire state’s crop.
And, unlike heartier crops, like soybeans or corn, or tomatoes for canning, tomatoes for the fresh grocery and restaurant market cannot be harvested mechanically — to avoid damage, tomatoes must be picked by human hands. Every fresh tomato an American purchases was hand-picked by another person.
The owners of Florida’s industrial tomato farms can’t control the price of oil, or the prevalence of pests, or the weather. But, thanks to antiquated U.S. labor laws that exempt farm workers from many of the income and safety protections other American workers enjoy, the owners of Florida’s tomato farms can exercise a lot of control over one thing — the wages and the hours of their workers.
Tomatoland exposes the harsh conditions faced by Florida’s industrial tomato farm workers, many of whom are migrant workers from impoverished rural villages in places like Guatemala and Mexico. These migrant farm workers speak little English — in fact, many do not even speak Spanish as a first language, but instead tribal Native American languages, which can make it difficult for them to communicate with aid workers and local authorities — and impossible for them to understand the written English contracts, pesticide warnings and health waivers their employers often have them sign.
Often tomato farm workers with poor English skills and shaky legal status as immigrants are afraid to report unsafe work conditions or illegally low wages to local authorities. As a consequence many are subject to terrible violations of workplace safety and wage fairness laws.
According to Estabrook, many of these workers come to the United States seeking temporary work to support sick family members or children back home, only to find themselves recruited by unscrupulous employers who force them to work long, dawn-to-dusk hours without breaks in the heat, without protective gear in fields frequently sprayed with herbicides and pesticides known to harm human health, for far less than minimum wage. In 2009 the average tomato farm worker in Florida was paid 45 cents for every 32 pound bucket of hand-picked tomatoes — just pennies per pound.
But these overworked, poorly paid workers are the lucky ones. In Immokalee, some migrant farm workers face far harsher conditions as slaves. Not “virtual” wage slaves, but actual slaves – kidnapped or tricked into captivity by slave traders, sold to field bosses as property, and confined at night in locked trucks or sheds, threatened or beaten if they try to escape, and sometimes even chained. Their wages, paid by tomato farmers, are confiscated by the subcontractors who supervise slave workers and bring them to and from the fields.
In Tomatoland, Estabrook profiles one such slave, Lucas Mariano Domingo, a migrant Guatemalan worker who had come to the United States seeking farm work with the hope of supporting a sick parent back home. Instead, he was tricked by an Immokalee slave boss, Cesar Navarette, who promised good pay, good food and a safe place to live, only to hold Domingo captive for two years in a slave camp where Domingo was forced to work all day in fields under Navarette’s direction and live in the back of a box truck with three other men, no heat or air conditioning and no toilet. Navarette’s slaves were regularly recaptured and beaten if they tried to escape.
Domingo finally escaped his captors in 2009 and reported them to the police; they were prosecuted for violating the 13th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits slavery. But according to District Attorney Douglas Malloy, other slavers continue to operate in Immokalee.
However, Tomatoland also profiles leaders of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a community organization established over a decade ago by Florida farm workers to promote safer working conditions and fairer wages for workers, and to fight modern slavery on Florida’s farms. In 2010 the Coalition of Immokalee Workers scored a huge victory in their battle to change big agribusiness when the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange signed an agreement with CIW agreeing to extend implementation of the CIW’s Fair Food Code of Conduct to 90% of Florida’s industrial tomato farms.
The hard-won agreement, to be phased in during this year’s winter growing season, guarantees that hourly tomato farm workers will be paid the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour, increases and clarifies pay rates for farm workers who are paid by the pound, mandates regular rest breaks in the shade, gives farm workers access to safety training, establishes a complaint hotline workers can call to report safety violations and requires farm owners to report evidence of slave labor to the proper authorities.
But in order to continue to hold industrial tomato farm owners accountable, and keep working to improve labor conditions for the farm workers who hand-pick America’s tomatoes, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and their allies need help from American consumers.
This Labor Day, if you are lucky enough to have the day off, take a moment to recognize the hard laboring farm workers (who often toil without holidays) to make America’s abundant food supply possible. To help Florida’s tomato farm workers, and learn more about farm labor, visit the Coalition of Immokalee Workers website and Barry Estabrook’s website, Politics of the Plate. And as you prepare your Labor Day dinner, take a moment to consider where that food comes from, and whether you would be willing to pay a few pennies more for produce to support fairer wages and safer conditions for the workers who grow and harvest your food.
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Photo of sliced tomatoes by Scott Bauer, from the USDA. Public domain. Photo of green tomatoes copyright 2010 by Jaelithe Judy. Used with permission.