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.
IMMOKALEE: A STORY OF SLAVERY AND FREEDOM
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.
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 eke 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.)
ALSO SEE: Victory over Taco Bell