Your tomato’s possible ties to slavery
April 21st, 2011
09:57 AM ET

Your tomato’s possible ties to slavery

By Amanda Kloer, Special to CNN

Editor's Note: Amanda Kloer is an editor with Change.org, where she organizes and promotes campaigns to end human trafficking. She has created numerous reports, documentaries and training materials on human trafficking in the United States and around the world. Here, she examines the work of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a group that represents around 4,000 farm workers in Florida. In November the group partnered with Florida Tomato Growers Exchange – a trade association that represents the majority of Florida’s tomato farmers – to create a code of conduct which includes a zero tolerance policy on forced and child labor for farm workers. The code covers about 90% of the Florida tomato industry, and is in effect beginning with the 2011 – 2012 season.

Antonio Martinez stood in the hot sun, exhausted from a cross-country journey, and waited. Just 21 years old, he had traveled from Mexico to the U.S. with the promise of a well-paid construction job in California. But now he stood in a field in central Florida, listening to one man pay another man $500 to own him.

“I realized I had been sold like an animal without any compassion," Antonio thought at the time, more than 10 years ago.

He was right. In modern times, in the United States, Antonio had been sold into slavery in Florida's tomato fields.

Antonio is not alone
Unfortunately, Antonio’s case is not an isolated one. Many enslaved farmworkers in Florida pick the tomatoes that end up on sliced onto sandwiches, mixed into salads and stacked on supermarket shelves across the country. Over the last decade, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, an award-winning farmworker advocacy organization, has identified more than 1,200 victims of human trafficking picking produce in Florida's fields.

These slaves often work for 10-12 hours a day, seven days a week. They are kept in crampt and dirty trailers, constantly monitored, and have wages garnished to pay a debt invented by the trafficker to keep victims enslaved. Many victims face threats to themselves or their families, regular beatings, sexual harassment and rape. They can't leave, can't seek help. They are in every way trapped.

Cases of full-blown slavery like Antonio survived are extreme. But the U.S. Justice Department has prosecuted at least seven cases of farm labor servitude in Florida in the last 15 years.

Exploitation in the tomato industry isn't just the work of a handful of immoral individuals – it's the result of a supply chain which is set up to support the exploitation of the very people who keep it running.

Slavery’s connections to products you buy
Tomato pickers in Florida are paid less than two pennies for each pound of tomatoes they pick. That's the same pound you buy at the grocery store for anywhere between $1.50 and $4.00, depending on location and season. It's a poverty-inducing wage that has diminished in real value since the 1970s, even as the retail price of tomatoes has increased.

Here's what happens in the supply chain: major corporate buyers such as supermarkets, fast food chains and food service companies regularly purchase a massive amount of produce. Their huge purchases allow these companies to leverage their buying power and demand the lowest possible prices from tomato growers. This, in turn, exerts a powerful downward pressure on wages and working conditions in tomato suppliers' operations.

The result of this dynamic is thousands of workers like Antonio was – exploited, enslaved or held in debt bondage so growers can eek out a few more pennies and meet the major companies' bargain basement expectations. It's a dynamic that has existed for decades. But over the past few years, one grassroots organization has started to challenge the big buyers. And they're winning.

The Campaign for Fair Food
To help fight the rampant human trafficking and other injustices in the tomato industry, The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) launched the Campaign for Fair Food in 2001. Their goal is to reverse the trend that exploits workers by harnessing the purchasing power of the food industry for the betterment of farmworker wages and working conditions. Over the past decade, they've made major headway.

CIW has succeeded in getting Taco Bell, McDonald's, Subway and Burger King to support raising farmworker wages by a penny-per-pound and implementing protections against human trafficking, sexual harassment, and other forms of exploitation. They've also convinced major food service companies, including Aramark and Sodexo, as well as the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange, the largest tomato grower organization in Florida, to do the same. Now, they’re turning their attention to supermarkets (Whole Foods has supported CIW since 2008.)

How you can help
Modern-day slavery can be conquered. Antonio did it four months after he was originally sold in the 1990s. When his crewleader fell asleep, Antonio made a run for it and escaped the farm. Despite the fact that his traffickers continued to follow and threaten him, Antonio testified against his captors and sent them to prison. He now works with CIW as an activist so others do not have to experience what he did.

You can help ensure that no other workers suffer from the exploitation and slavery Antonio suffered by informing yourself about the supply chain. You can write your local supermarket manager to let them know you support efforts to end modern-day slavery in the fields. CIW's website has a sample letter and other resources. You can trace some products on Anti-Slavery International’s interactive map. You can find ways to take action at Change.org. And here are even more ways to help compiled by CNN.

By holding businesses accountable, every person who shops or eats can help ensure stories like Antonio's are relegated to the history books, where slavery in America belongs.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Amanda Kloer.


soundoff (78 Responses)
  1. Alex Bajc

    I would say that in your analysis of the chain, starting from big corporate buyers, there should be another step in front: we, Consumers, demand ever lower prices for tomato, sandwiches, ketchup, tomato paste, pizzas and other things we buy at the supermarket and then corporate buyers....

    April 21, 2011 at 2:41 pm | Reply
  2. wendy555555

    round up all illegals and send them home; i see whats happening; the illegals are going to scream slavery so they can get a free pass; i dont feel like listening to the slavery moaning for another 100 years; and thats where it is going; it sounds like they sign up for the scam then when they get here they want to be free and try and stiff the people; someone needs to let the world you will be deported no questions asked

    April 21, 2011 at 5:23 pm | Reply
    • Amy K

      WoW...you clearly have no human decency....I sure hope you aren't teaching your children that. They, just like the man in this article, deserve respect; and to be in a world where people can work together, regardless of where they come from.

      April 21, 2011 at 6:38 pm | Reply
      • AlexaLove

        How about you just STFU and get over it.. god you people annoy me. (people in the comments)

        April 29, 2011 at 10:56 am |
    • Erica

      why dont you come down here and do the work you say get rid of the illegals. remember that next time u eat a salad see a tomato orange strawberries think how picked them you dont like the illegals than dont eat vegatables fruits and kill for your own meat bc somewhere a illegal has touched everything u buy.

      April 25, 2011 at 12:30 am | Reply
    • pete

      wendy, how about supporting the federal agency bring the companies to justice for human trafficking? where's your sense of justice and law and order?

      May 3, 2011 at 2:51 am | Reply
      • Andres

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        March 5, 2012 at 11:22 pm |
    • JPinOakland

      If you don't like the system, work to change it. Write your congressperson to support minimum wage and fair labor conditions for farm laborers, stiff penalties for employers who hire illegals, and taxes to fund enforcement.

      If you aren't willing to fix the system, stop whining and move to China. I hear the iPad factory is hiring...

      August 1, 2011 at 8:44 pm | Reply
  3. Me Me

    @ wendy555555

    it was over 300 yrs of slave moaning .... get it right stuipd face! :) LOL

    April 21, 2011 at 5:27 pm | Reply
  4. Me Me

    Yes I purposely spelled stupid incorrectly, just for you wendy.

    April 21, 2011 at 5:29 pm | Reply
  5. Jun

    Why dont CNN take up the American NGO's whom are abusing the situation in the 3rd world and pretend to help against human trafficking BY trafficking to justify their existence, look at ijm.org International Justice Mission whom hires minors and drive around the Philippines raiding bars, rests and other places planting evidence and using their rented minors to pose as victims to get convictions not caring that innocent people end up in jail. see http://www.victims-of-ijm.ph Gary Haugen of IJM is a HUGE HUMAN TRAFFICKER hiding behind the US Government whom only cares about convictions not to stop trafficking. If Gary Haugen did in America what he does in the Philippines he would get the electrical chair or the needle

    April 21, 2011 at 11:54 pm | Reply
  6. prism

    Day by day the human trafficking is spreading like a virus in the whole world. It is the second largest criminal activity following the drug trade.Thousand of young boys and girls are trafficked every year.
    This article remind me of a documentary, "Dreams Die Hard: Survivors of Slavery in America Tell Their Stories" which exposes the slavery that puts food on our tables, cleans middle-class homes, and abuses young men and women in forced prostitution.

    Every individual has a skill they can contribute to fight human trafficking, and together we can end slavery in our lifetime.

    Watch this documentary onlin on cultureunplugged

    April 22, 2011 at 6:27 am | Reply
  7. Polaris Project

    Human trafficking is a form of modern-day slavery where people profit from the control and exploitation of others. It happens every day in every state in America and around the world. Polaris Project is committed to combating human trafficking and modern-day slavery, and to strengthening the anti-trafficking movement. To learn more about human trafficking in the United States, please visit our website at http://www.polarisproject.org

    If you have information about a possible case of human trafficking or you would like to request more information, please call the National Human Trafficking Resource Center at 1-888-3737-888.

    April 22, 2011 at 11:13 am | Reply
  8. DJ

    No one should be enslaved, that is awful but... I have to say... these people are illegal, they are breaking our law by coming here in the first place. Yet another group that should be deported, now ICE should know where to find them. America's should plant a garden, cut their own grass and clean their own houses it would decrease the illegal population drastically. Stop hiring them.

    April 22, 2011 at 11:51 am | Reply
    • sara

      According to the article he was brought here, told he had a construction job in California, then was sold to some Farm owner in Florida...If this man, or any of the enslaved were illegal, then the farm owners and corporations that are making millions off of free labor are the only ones breaking the law. Just fyi...people from other countries are allowed to come into the US and work, legally, even if they don't enter legally. Some are Doctors .... that you yourself might visit when you need help. Many take care of the "discarded" elderly in nursing homes. And yes, some come here illegally because they are escaping persecution from their home countries. Or maybe, they just want to feed their families. Why do so many people see them as the "bad guy".

      April 22, 2011 at 8:04 pm | Reply
    • Amy K

      Re-read the article. They are not here illegally. There are also non-profits fighting for better wages for these people. Not every foreigner is an "illegal" . By the way, don't you think it sounds a bit racist to demote these people to the term of "illegal"....like what, they're not all the way human cause they haven't earned the "legal" status. If you don't know a foreingers' status, the respectful thing to do would be to refer to them as "man", or "woman". Thank you

      April 22, 2011 at 8:13 pm | Reply
      • Erica

        Hello,
        Does it not make you sick to listen to these people? I just wrote a arguement research paper on this same topic last week. I live in FL and I'm married into a Legal and Illegal Mexican family. This serious matter needs more attention. I do not think that it matters of they are illegal or legal. They working in the US and are subject to the same protection as American citizens. Legal or not nobody shouold be able to buy or sell any human. No one can tell me that people havent complained once on how much any kind of vegetable or fruit cost. Not one of these people that have their nasty comments would do the back break dangerous work these hardworking people do. I would love a response back via my email not under this negative page. I would love more insight on your research also with my knowledge and experience maybe we can do something more!

        April 25, 2011 at 12:25 am |
    • anordinarymum

      You are so full of loathe and disdain, there is no room in you for anything productive, nor progressive, and sadly, no room for good.

      April 23, 2011 at 2:17 am | Reply
      • Leidy

        Surprisingly well-written and inforaitmve for a free online article.

        December 25, 2011 at 12:28 pm |
      • cdkbsoyth

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        December 26, 2011 at 3:52 am |
  9. Phil, Ohio

    Search "Produce Theft"
    One web site is called 'The Packer'
    NY Times reported the other day that they stole produce & Meat!
    Authorities in search of stolen produce trucks | The Packer
    Law enforcement authorities are on the lookout for a scam allegedly run by a phony trucking company that has made off with more than a half dozen loads of ...

    April 23, 2011 at 1:48 am | Reply
  10. Name*Sam

    Bottom line:
    Human trafficing: wrong
    illegal immigrants: wrong
    Large companies monopolizing and having too much power: wrong

    it all comes down to the basics of right vs. wrong. The commonality here is greed. And once it starts it just continues to snowball in all directions.

    April 23, 2011 at 1:17 pm | Reply
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      March 4, 2012 at 1:11 am | Reply
  11. Another Wendy

    As a grammar Nazi, I have to point out that I think the author means "eke" out a living, rather than "eek". I screamed "eek" in dismay at the incorrect usage of a word on this CNN post.

    April 24, 2011 at 10:14 am | Reply
  12. Underdog Rising

    These people are sick. The real problem is the de-humanization of latino people. Because of our coulture we see a article like this and think hes illeagal. Instead of thinking this is disgusting and should never happen in America. Its very sad. I truly hate this cultural cancer. Bottom line its racist and unaceptable.

    April 27, 2011 at 6:39 pm | Reply
  13. steve

    bad as it sounds,i would like to bring up a scenario.i a zim immigrant in south africa.i worked in 5 restaurants with no pay at all but just meagre commission and tips.after all that i had to pay more than 10 percent of that daily inoder to keep my job. Help others please

    April 30, 2011 at 12:59 am | Reply
  14. lizzie

    Interesting that a link to a US Dept of Labor interactive map excludes the U.S., the Cote d'Ivoire and Ghana for that matter.

    May 1, 2011 at 9:30 pm | Reply
  15. Sam

    Be lucky we actually still pay you to pick our veggies and fruits. Your complaining and moaning because you want everything free. A free pass to drive around in $60,000 cars, have $20,000 in cash and get every American program for free that we have when others in this country suffer. Yes I am for humans as well but if you can't even get a green card less a social security number, and stop crying all the time, then maybe we may feel sorry for you. Its sad how everyone that complains always has to make it all about them. Oh boo hoo me, I want everything an American citizen has and I want it for free or I will cry slavery. If you do not like what your doing, go back home!

    May 2, 2011 at 1:22 pm | Reply
    • Sam

      Plus your always blaming your problems on corporate america instead of your employers. How are we to tell how is legal and illegal when you cry racism anyway. I guarantee you would bitch and moan if we started flooding your country.

      May 2, 2011 at 1:24 pm | Reply
  16. Erica

    It sounds to me that most of you people belong in a giant bubble all to yourselfs. Wake up!!! Unless you all are Native American you are here because one time someone in your family was a immgrant. If you do not agree with illegals or legal workers or workers saying they are being in slaved stop buying fruits and vegatables GROW YOUR OWN!! raise your own cattle.

    May 4, 2011 at 12:16 am | Reply
  17. Shaun

    Why the big fuss over whether a person is 'illegal' or not. We are all world citizens. We drink the same water, breathe the same air and eat the same food. We are all born into this world with nothing and we all depart the same way. EVERYONE has the same rights and one of them is to be free. Unfortunately, it seems to be human nature to take and control what isn't theirs to take and control. As long as governments continue to govern by taking and controlling, many will also feel that they have the right to also take and control.

    May 5, 2011 at 9:42 am | Reply
  18. CC

    There are lots of things we can't identify,iincluding food ! But how do we know where our food come from,when we go to a traditional markets?I think we could only inform people, but what else can we do to help out?

    May 5, 2011 at 9:41 pm | Reply
  19. robroy mcgregor

    Florida before Spain and the United States was part of a thriving Meso American Indian Culture that fanned out over the entire the Gulf of Mexico Landscape from present day Mexico formerly known as Tenochtitlan as the Cultural center. When Cortez discovered this Indian empire he was amazed that the City rivaled anything in Europe with it's stone works, aquaducts, and architecture of the Meso Indians. Now generations later we call the descendants of this native culture Alians in their own land. We are all immigrants and aliens at some point in Amercas history and establishment. So let's recognize this Truth. The US constitution protects the rights of all people to the pursuit of happiness and freedom of assembly. Let's all be compassionate towards one another. And live like the Children of America that we all are. Our shared legacy to all children of the Eaarth is to Live in Love, Respect and Peace towards All upon this Free Earth.

    July 19, 2011 at 9:04 pm | Reply
  20. Sue

    If everyone would start growing at least some of their own food, demand would go down. It's more nutritious, you get exercise at the same time, and YOU are in control of what you eat. People say they do not have enough space but you can grow tomatoes (among other things) on a terrace in pots. If you can't do it yourself buy local from family farms. It may cost a little more but it tastes better, it boosts your local economy and I doubt too many family farms "own" slaves these days.

    October 2, 2011 at 12:10 pm | Reply
  21. LM

    The word "crampt" is spelled wrong in this article. It should be cramped. This article is so important, please spell correctly so people take you seriously!

    November 2, 2011 at 6:04 am | Reply
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    April 24, 2013 at 1:19 pm | Reply
  23. Laurette Austin

    I used to frequent Wend's often. I will not go back until this establishment assures me that it will not continue to fuel this practice of human slavery in the tomato fields of Florida.

    November 21, 2013 at 10:05 am | Reply
  24. Amy K

    Why? He came here legally, hired by a corporation, then mistreated and sold into slavery. He should be given what any American would expect if they were enslaved. You know why, cause in America we are suppose to treat humans as humans! Thats what is suppose to set us apart from other countries and make us such a desirable destination. Instead, he was enslaved.....now he should be properly compensated, I say one million per year, and let him decide if he want s to stay or go. Thats the least this company can offer, and giving him the right to stay is the least this country can offer. I am an American, born and raised in Colorado. And I am so ashamed that so many people in my country think like you.

    April 21, 2011 at 4:53 pm | Reply
  25. Charles H

    "Emery" is a name that came from Europe, likely originating in France before being introduced into England. Your ancestors were immigrants. You are only an "American" because you were born here. You did not choose to live here. Antonio chose to come here for a better life, leaving behind everything he knew, while you were comfortably sitting pretty making at least minimum wage. How dare a person like you say such a thing. He is as much of an American as your ancestors were, which is a lot more than you can say for yourself.

    April 21, 2011 at 5:00 pm | Reply
  26. Me Me

    @ the author –

    Really??
    And where is the article for those, (…. SLAVES) who were brought, oops I mean kidnapped over 300 years ago forced into slavery, rapped, molested, abused?? Really Amanda Kloler this is the article you chose to write about; the tomato guy?? This is a joke right??

    April 21, 2011 at 5:23 pm | Reply
  27. Amy K

    I want to clarify that I don't mean to imply that All other countries treat their citizens so inhumanely....my emphasis was that there should be no place in America where that happens, beacuse we are above that, right? At least I am. I know the last thing I would do is enslave someone and not feel bad cause they are not from here, and then when I am caught, send them back home, cause thats where they were born. I mean, who does that make sense to?

    Emery? Have u know comapssion for a fellow human being? Oh wait, let me guess....I guess your Christian beliefs only apply within the United States borders..

    April 21, 2011 at 5:18 pm | Reply
  28. sambo

    let's get jessie jackson and al dullton down there to march for reparations. can't have a good slave conversation without those leeches in the mix so I inserted them

    April 22, 2011 at 1:11 pm | Reply
  29. Amy K

    The article is bringing awareness to how some suppliers get their food. Through slavery! If you see this man as just a "tomato man" then u are really missing the big picture.

    The reason why this article is important, is because its happening now. And we can do something about it. I hate how Africams were enslaved before this too, which is the main reason why most sane, compassionate peoples' stomach swirl with disgust when they see it happening again!

    April 21, 2011 at 6:28 pm | Reply
  30. DJ

    Don't forget to write about their fellow Africans that sold them to the slavers either.

    April 22, 2011 at 11:52 am | Reply

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