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.