Hey – My name is Greg Asbed, and I work with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW). The CIW is an organization mainly made up of farmworkers picking fruits and vegetables for poverty wages in Florida (US) and we have just over 4,000 members.
Immokalee is a town that sits atop Florida’s Everglades and is the heart of Florida’s billion-dollar agricultural industry.
We’ll be your host today for the BBC’s “World Have Your Say,” which is great, though the reason we are hosting the show isn’t so great: There have been several federal prosecutions for slavery, involving over 1,000 workers, in the past dozen years here in Florida, earning our town the title of “ground zero for modern-day slavery” from federal civil rights prosecutors.
So, as your host, we’d like to start the conversation today with a question: If there were two tomatoes in the store, one labeled “Picked by workers paid a living wage and treated with dignity” and the other labeled “Picked by workers paid a poverty wage, subject to verbal and physical abuse, and in the most extreme cases, forced to work in conditions of modern-day slavery,” would you buy the tomato possibly picked by slaves?
That’s a question we at the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) ask consumers all the time, and the answer, almost invariably, is a resounding “No.”
First, some background: Working conditions for farmworkers in the United States, particularly on the East Coast, have forever been almost unimaginably harsh — hot, heavy, dangerous work for the worst wages of any job in the country, topped off with verbal and, all too often, physical abuse.
In fact, in Florida’s fields alone there have been seven federal prosecutions for slavery, involving over 1,000 workers, in the past dozen years.
The conditions were most famously dubbed America’s “Harvest of Shame” in a seminal documentary fifty years ago by CBS’s Edward R. Murrow. But today, fifty years later, the CIW is leading the fight to end the harvest of shame once and for all.
Part of the CIW’s work is aimed at bringing slavery operations to justice, and we do so by working with state and federal law enforcement officials to investigate and prosecute bosses who would use violence or the threat of violence to force their workers to work against their will.
But another part, the more public face of our work, is aimed at changing the market conditions that allow slavery to fester behind the products that we all eat every day. The CIW’s “Campaign for Fair Food” is specifically aimed at eliminating slavery and improving the underlying exploitative conditions that give rise to slavery in the Florida tomato industry.
The campaign is based on the simple question posed to consumers at the top of the post. The goal of the campaign is to hold the major food retail corporations accountable for the human rights violations in their suppliers’ operations, and to harness their unparalleled market power to demand more humane, more modern conditions in Florida’s fields.
The challenge for our campaign lies both in building awareness that exploitation is the norm today in US agriculture, and in building the alternative so that consumers have an available, and transparent, choice. As US Senator Bernie Sanders says, “Slavery is the extreme, the norm is a disaster.”