Tuesday, April 29, 2003

Hey! All you east coast people. Hope you enjoyed breakfast:
Immokalee [, Florida's] tomato pickers are paid as little as forty cents per bucket. A filled bucket weighs thirty-two pounds. To earn fifty dollars in a day, an Immokalee picker must harvest two tons of tomatoes, or a hundred and twenty-five buckets.

Orange- and grapefruit-picking pay slightly better, but the hours are longer. To get to the fruit, pickers must climb twelve-to-eighteen-foot-high ladders, propped on soggy soil, then reach deep into thorny branches, thrusting both hands among pesticide-coated leaves before twisting the fruit from its stem and rapidly stuffing it into a shoulder-slung moral, or pick sack. (Grove owners post guards in their fields to make sure that the workers do not harm the trees.) A full sack weighs about a hundred pounds; it takes ten sacks-about two thousand oranges-to fill a bano, a bin the size of a large wading pool. Each bin earns the worker a ficha, or token, redeemable for about seven dollars. An average worker in a decent field can fill six, seven, maybe eight bins a day. After a rain, though, or in an aging field with overgrown trees, the same picker might work an entire day and fill only three bins.

Migrant workers are usually employed by labor contractors, who provide crews to tend and harvest crops for local farmers, or growers, as they're more commonly known. Contractors oversee workers in groups ranging in size from a dozen to many hundreds, and accompany the workers as they travel with the seasons. They can exert near-absolute control over their workers' lives; besides handling the payroll and deducting taxes, they are frequently the sole source of the workers' food and housing, which, in addition to the ride to and from the fields, they provide for a fee.

About ninety per cent of South Florida's laborers are new each season. Recently arrived pickers are often mystified by American culture, unsure of their rights (or the idea of rights in general), and unlikely to speak English. Workers coming from the highlands of southern Mexico and Guatemala speak dozens of languages, including Zapotecan, Mam, Kanjobal, Tzotzil, and Mixteca, and often cannot communicate with each other. In the post-pastoral fields of industrialized modern agriculture, quaint notions of worker solidarity are unrealistic....

All these factors combine to create, in South Florida, what a Justice Department official calls "ground zero for modern slavery." The area has seen six cases of involuntary servitude successfully prosecuted in the past six years. Describing local migrant-contractor power dynamics, Michael Baron, an agent with the U.S. Border Patrol who knows Florida well, told me, "Most of the time, these workers are housed miles from civilization, with no telephones or cars. They're controllable. There's no escape. If you do escape, what are you gonna do? Run seventeen miles to the nearest town, when you don't even know where it is? And, if you have a brother or a cousin in the group, are you gonna leave them behind? You gonna escape with seventeen people? You'll make tracks like a herd of elephants. Whoever's got you, they'll find you. And heaven help you when they do."...

As in other sectors of the food economy, the production and distribution of South Florida's tomato crop has become increasingly concentrated. A handful of private firms like Six L's Packing Company, Gargiulo, Inc., and Pacific Tomato Growers supply millions of pounds of tomatoes, either directly or indirectly, to supermarkets and corporations such as Taco Bell, Wendy's, Burger King, McDonald's, and Carnival Cruise Lines.

Ownership and distribution is even more tightly controlled in the citrus industry. Lykes Brothers is a billiondollar conglomerate with holdings in insurance, real estate, and cattle as well as citrus. Larger still is Consolidated Citrus, which owns fifty-five thousand acres in Florida alone. A majority of the state's crop, in the form of either fruit, juice, or concentrate, goes to three final buyers: Cargill, a fifty-one-billion-dollar commodities giant and one of the largest privately owned companies in the world, with operations in fifty-nine countries; Tropicana, which is owned by Pepsico; and Minute Maid, owned by Coca-Cola. These companies are quick to point out that they don't actually own the groves or harvest the fruit themselves. They merely employ supervisors who test for quality and sugar content, coordinate prices on world commodities markets, and, ultimately, control the harvest.

In the past two decades, according to the United States Department of Labor, farm receipts from fruit and vegetable sales have nearly doubled. Between 1989 and 1998, however, wages paid to farmworkers declined, dropping from $6.89 to $6.18 per hour. The national median annual income for farmworkers is $7,500. A University of Florida survey found that the average income for Immokalee farmworkers is even lower-in 1998, just $6,574.

According to the Department of Justice, the number of prosecutions of human-trafficking cases throughout the country has tripled in the past three years; there are currently a hundred and twenty-five investigations of such cases under way. Typically, these cases take years to pursue, and convictions with meaningful sentences are difficult to obtain.

[John Bowe in the 4/21 New Yorker].

Not like conditions are that much better out here, but we do try to stay away from outright slavery.


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