Right now I’m in the middle of a terrific book called Tomatoland by Barry Estabrook. It’s a scathing exposé of the U.S. fresh tomato industry based almost entirely in Florida. There are a slew of concerns I now have about the way tomatoes are produced having only read 2/3 of this book so far, but there’s one in particular that I wanted to share as soon as possible.
I think a lot of us are living under the blissful assumption that slavery is completely gone from this country, that human trafficking only exists very far away in poor countries that have nothing to do with us. Well, I am telling you right here and now: slavery still exists in the United States, and it exists in our tomato fields.
Most of the workers picking tomatoes in Florida are undocumented Mexican immigrants who couldn’t find work at home, and came to the States thinking they would have a better life here than the poor one they left behind. These people are obviously vulnerable, and some of them are tricked into crashing at a stranger’s home who promises to find them work in the fields. When done doing back-breaking work and being poisoned by pesticides in the fields, these hosts shut the workers into stifling box trucks, vans, or shacks with no toilets, charge them ridiculously inflated prices for rent and an amount of food that couldn’t sustain anyone, leaving the workers forced to work off their supposed debts. Those who attempt to leave or take off of work because of injury are typically beaten.
Even those workers who aren’t technically held in forced servitude are constantly abused. The labor laws that apply in most workplaces in this country do not apply to farmworkers. If they are sick or injured as a result of their work, they aren’t allowed to take time off. The laws that are supposed to protect farmworkers from toxic pesticide exposure are not enforced. Farmworkers are almost always not paid a living wage, not even minimum wage —that is, the people who put food on our tables cannot afford to eat. And as undocumented immigrants they can’t really speak up for themselves. Most of them are trapped in this system, whether or not they are technically slaves.
It’s hard to believe, isn’t it? The few people I’ve told about this have asked me why no one knows this is happening right under our noses. Estabrook recounts in his book a conversation he had with a lawyer, Douglas Molloy, who prosecutes slavery cases in Florida. Molloy told him that, “…any American who has eaten a winter tomato, either purchased at a supermarket or on top of a fast food salad, has eaten a fruit picked by the hand of a slave. ‘That’s not an assumption. […] That is a fact.'”
Fortunately, before and after the publishing of this book, an advocacy group called the Coalition of Immokalee Workers has run several successful campaigns to persuade fast food giants to commit to sourcing socially just tomatoes, and they’re still working on doing the same with grocery chains. Just last year, too, a documentary called Food Chains came out that essentially put Tomatoland on the big screen (I highly recommend it). The reason the campaigns haven’t been even more successful and that this horrific problem was under the rug for so long is because the corporate stakeholders have enough money to lobby for laws in their favor and, directly or indirectly, get law enforcement to look the other way.
If this is something you care about at all, I suggest that you only eat tomatoes whose origins you can be assured did not involve slavery and laborer abuse. And just so you know, the canned tomato industry is completely separate and as far as I know, free from these sorts of abuses, probably because canning tomatoes are picked by machine.
I’m writing this post so that hopefully a few more people will know. Please pass along the message.
I happen to have a serious aversion to raw tomatoes, which has always been annoying because they’re in everything. But now I’m very glad I dislike them. I am as disgusted by the abuses involved in their production as I am with their taste.