The following Op-Ed was published January 10, 2011 in gainesville.com, the on-line version of the Gainesville Sun. The author, Dr. Sam Trickey, is a member and Past President of the Board of Directors of the National Farm Worker Ministry.
Sam Trickey: Time to stop human trafficking
January 11th is worldwide Human Trafficking Awareness Day. According to the State Department’s 2010 Trafficking in Persons report, “the majority of modern slaves (are) in agriculture and mining around the world.”
It happens here. Last July, the U.S. Department of Justice indicted 3 people for holding over 50 farm workers in northern Alachua County. The Haitianrs were brought in on H-2A agricultural guestworker visas, promised three years work, and good pay. Upon arrival, their employers confiscated their passports and visas.
The indictment says the workers were “denied necessary medical care” and suffered “chronic hunger, weight loss, illness and fatigue.” If workers complained about the conditions they were threatened with deportation. One of the females reported being raped.
Sadly, this is just one of many disgraces in Florida’s fields. Since 1997, federal officials have produced seven Florida farm worker slavery convictions. Over 1,100 farmworkers have been liberated from slavery in Florida’s fields. A major bust in East Palatka in June, 2005, led to convictions.
In December, 2008, farm labor employers in Immokalee were sentenced to federal prison for beating, chaining, and locking tomato pickers in a produce truck overnight and forcing them to work.
Present-day agricultural slavery is the extreme limit of a range of degraded working conditions, abuses, and sub-poverty wages still endured by most farm workers. Excluded from basic labor protections, farm workers live without rights in a climate of abuse that allows modern-day slavery cases occur again and again.
There is hope for the better. Last November, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), a Florida organization, reached a landmark agreement with the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange, which represents 90 percent of the Florida tomato industry. The agreement extends the CIW’s fair food code of conduct, including zero tolerance for modern-day slavery, a system for farm workers to report abuse without fear of retribution, and pass-through of a penny per pound wage increase from retailers to workers.
This historic agreement is part of the CIW’s Campaign for Fair Food. By it farm workers and consumers have persuaded Taco Bell, McDonald’s, Burger King, Subway, Whole Foods and other companies to do the right thing. It is an example of farm worker organizing for basic human rights and reasonable wages.
The New York Times called the agreement “a remarkable victory”. But supermarket chains, except for Whole Foods, still won’t participate. In fact, last month Publix spokesman Dwaine Stevens told an Alabama newspaper, “We don’t have any plans to sit down with the CIW. If there are some atrocities going on, it’s not our business.” This disregard for “atrocities” is in stark contrast to Publix’s community involvement reputation. To those of us from major faith traditions, it is an appalling dismissal of human worth. It is an embarrassment to Florida.
In observance of Human Trafficking Awareness Day, be conscious of farm workers held against their will and forced to work. Call on Publix to live up to its values by joining the CIW and other retailers in the fight against modern-day slavery in the fields.