By Kandace Vallejo
Daily Texan Guest Columnist
October 6, 2009
The day after Thanksgiving 1960, millions of Americans tuned into the landmark documentary “Harvest of Shame.” Narrated by Edward Murrow, the legendary pioneer of television news broadcasting, the report provided viewers with vivid portrayals of the degradation experienced daily by migrant farmworkers throughout the U.S. In an iconic soundbite, one produce grower casually explained, “We used to own our slaves. Now we just rent them.”
Very little has changed in 50 years. For example, U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders notes that “the norm is a disaster, and the extreme is slavery” for tomato harvesters in Florida. The picking piece rate has remained stagnant since 1980. A worker today must pick and haul roughly two and a half tons of tomatoes to earn minimum wage for a typical 10-hour day.
These wages, combined with the precarious nature of farm labor and virtually nonexistent legal protections, result in workers’ sub-poverty annual earnings and create an environment where abuses as extreme as slavery can flourish.
Slavery. As in seven prosecuted cases involving 15 farm employers and over 1000 workers – native-born and immigrant alike – in the last decade. In the most recent case, a dozen workers escaped from a box truck in Immokalee, Florida where they were being held against their will, beaten, chained and forced to pick tomatoes for little or no pay. After successfully prosecuting their enslavers, U.S. Attorney Doug Molloy acknowledged that the handful of cases that have come to light are “just the tip of the iceberg.”
At the forefront of today’s abolition movement is an award-winning farmworker’s organization, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW). Their anti-slavery efforts have been praised by Florida Governor Charlie Crist, FBI Director Robert Mueller, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), and leading trafficking experts the world over. The CIW is not only the undisputed leader in uncovering slavery cases in Florida’s fields., it is also advancing a strategic program to eliminate the systemic poverty and powerlessness that lie at the heart of the state’s agricultural industry.
On Sept. 25, the CIW and Compass Group North America announced sweeping changes to improve tomato harvesters’ wages and working conditions. Compass is the first major foodservice provider to join Yum Brands, McDonald’s, Burger King, Subway, and Whole Foods Market in partnering with the CIW to address the human rights crisis in Florida’s fields.
These innovative agreements harness the market power of large retailers to improve labor standards in their tomato supply chains.
Yet Aramark – the foodservice provider of the Texas Union – remains on the sidelines. On its Web site, Aramark claims to “conduct business … according to the highest ethical standard.” With news of the Compass agreement, Aramark can no longer claim that it meets the highest ethical standard. If it wishes to retain the goodwill of students and the broader Austin community, Aramark should, with all due diligence, establish an agreement with the CIW to demand those same higher standards of its tomato suppliers. Until that time, Aramark will continue to play an indefensible and unnecessary role in prolonging Florida’s harvest of shame.
Vallejo is a cultural studies in education graduate student and a member of Fair Food Austin.