Whenever you have a vulnerable population living amidst a much more powerful one, there’s always the potential for exploitation that at its worst can become a story of modern day slavery. In the United States, we have a vast immigrant population; many of these immigrants come to the U.S. seeking a better income and life. Those who come with shaky English and limited education often end up working in service industries. They pick fruit, they work in hotels, and they bus tables at restaurants. These agricultural and hospitality industries are exactly the type of independent, non-unionized workplaces where human rights abuses can persist unseen.
Just a few days ago in Florida, a disturbing story of modern slavery played out after the owners of a labor contracting agency were arrested for holding 39 Filipino workers against their will. After the workers showed up at a contracting agency in Boca Raton, their passports were confiscated and they were placed in crowded, substandard living space without food or water. They were warned that they would be arrested and deported if they complained about their situation, and were thus coerced into working at local hotels and country clubs for little or no pay. The owners of the labor agency, Sophia Manuel, 41, and Alfonso Baldonado Jr., 45, knew that the workers faced potential harm or jailing upon return to the Philippines because they had significant amounts of debt there. The case is currently being investigated by the FBI, Homeland Security, and the U.S. Department of Labor.
Florida isn’t known, however, for shining the light on labor abuses, even after previous accounts of enslaved workers there. One of the most high-profile cases happened in 2008, when a family-run slave ring was uncovered. Two brothers, Cesar and Geovanni Navarrete kept twelve Mexican and Guatemalan migrant workers enslaved from 2005-2007. The Navarrete’s laborers worked on some of the biggest tomato farms in Florida, including two that were members of the Socially Accountable Farm Employers program, an organization that is meant to keep human rights abuses out of farm work. The workers were forced to live in a semi-truck container; they weren’t even let out to use the bathroom. They endured beatings from their captors. They finally were able to make a hole in the side of the truck to escape.
Politicians and leaders in states like Florida with large, vulnerable migrant populations need to recognize the potential for human rights abuses and speak out against them. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), a Florida organization that supports farm-worker rights, has called on Charlie Crist, Florida’s governor, to take more of a stand against modern slavery. The governor has yet to make a statement regarding the abuses, and he has not made any trips to the Florida tomato fields to see the conditions of the workers there.
Another part of CIW’s campaign, and one that all people can make a difference in, is the effort to boycott food sellers who use tomatoes and other produce that are picked in sub-standard work conditions. The CIW has had wins in convincing Taco Bell, McDonald’s, and Burger King to increase tomato pickers pay by a penny per bucket of tomatoes, something that can increase farm workers wages from $10,000 a year to $16,000. CIW is still trying to convince Trader Joe’s, Kroger, and Stop and Shop to accept the wage increases.
You can download letters at the CIW website to send to these companies, asking them to support worker welfare. Or better, yet, be conscious of where you pick up your produce and what your grocer’s buying practices are. In a global world, where you buy your tomatoes can have an effect on the prevalence of modern day slavery in America. Be conscious of the repercussions of personal buying habits and tell your local politician to take a stand against human rights abuses of the United States’ vulnerable populations.