Florida’s farm industry has long been plagued with high profile cases of worker abuse—including several instances of slavery. But one advocacy group, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) has works to bring justice and better working conditions for the mostly migrant laborers on Florida’s farms. Yesterday, the group had a major victory.

It took over a decade of struggle, but finally, the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange (FTGE) has signed onto the CIW’s Fair Food Code of Conduct. The agreement will bring better working conditions and a penny-per-pound raise for Florida’s tomato farm workers.

Harsh Working Conditions, Lack of Rights

U.S. farm workers do not enjoy the same legal protections extended to most other members of the workforce. The 1935 passage of the National Labor Relations Act gave millions of Americans basic workers rights, but farm laborers and domestic workers were left out of the bill—and, as Kevin Bales and Ron Soodalter write in The Slave Next Door, “are still denied the rights enjoyed by all other workers.” And working conditions are notoriously hard for farm workers. A 2008 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revealed that crop workers die from heat related illnesses at a rate 20 times higher than other U.S. workers.

Bring it to Fast Food Chains

The FTGE is a private cooperative of Florida’s tomato farm owners. For 15 years, they refused to come to an agreement with CIW—so, the CIW got to organizing. If the farm owners won’t cooperate, why not put pressure on the companies at the other end of the supply chain?

CIW organized student groups and farm workers to stage boycotts and demonstrations against major corporations that use Florida tomatoes in their products. Through their Fair Food campaign, launched in 2001, CIW was able to convince companies like Taco Bell, McDonalds, Burger King, Whole Foods, Subway and Sodexo to take steps to ensure their supply chains are free of worker abuse.

But it wasn’t until yesterday that the FTGE followed suite. In a statement, CIW spokesperson Lucas Benitez called this a “watershed moment in the history of Florida agriculture.” But, Benitez added, “there is still much to be done.”

Next on the agenda: supermarkets. Gerardo Reyes, also of CIW said: “It is time now for supermarket industry leaders to seize this historic opportunity to help make the promise of fresh—and fair—tomatoes from Florida a reality.”

Fighting Slavery

It was in the year 2000 that U.S. federal law recognized the extant of modern day slavery with the passage of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act. But years before this, CIW was instrumental in levying charges of slavery against unscrupulous people in the Florida farm industry. A 1997 landmark case resulted in 15 year sentences for Miguel Flores and Sebastian Gomez, who forced hundreds of workers to labor for virtually no pay monitored by armed guards, who shot and beat laborers who tried to escape. CIW’s website says, “The case was brought to federal authorities after five years of investigation by escaped workers and CIW members.” Both Flores and Gomez were charged with slavery.

Free the Slaves featured the work of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in our documentary Dreams Die Hard. Watch it after the jump!


Links: Slavery in the News

  • In Tel Aviv, activists staged an anti-slavery demonstration by posing as human beings for sale, complete with bar codes and price tags.

    FOX News: Women for Sale in Tel Aviv: At a shopping mall in Tel Aviv, Israel, anti-slavery activists stage a fake slave auction: “She’s blonde. Petite. Blue-eyed with delicate features.’Sophia,’ 30, was just one of fifteen women up for sale in a Tel Aviv shopping mall this week. This wasn’t a real sale, but an exhibition to draw attention to female trafficking. The display was sponsored by the Israeli Task Force Against Human Trafficking.”

  • Change.org: World’s Creepiest Fairytale Tells Story of Child Sexual Exploitation: “The Candy Shop takes place in a through-the-looking glass Atlanta, where a candy store is turning children into candy for chubby, sweaty male customers. In the real Atlanta, over 500 children a  month are sold for sex. Many estimates put it as one of the top cities in the country for child sex trafficking. The film is part of a city-wide campaign with anti-trafficking organizations Doorpost12Stone Church and StreetGrace, and 100% of the profits will go to support anti-trafficking programs in Atlanta. But the truly frightening part of The Candy Shop is that it could be set in any city, because child sex trafficking happens everywhere.”

  • WINK News: Florida Woman Charged with Trafficking Her Own Children: “Deputies say a Fort Myers woman turned her children into prostitutes, and beat and starved them if they didn’t buy her drugs. She faces felony charges, including Forced Labor through Human Trafficking…Reports say she beat the 4 young girls with a hammer, wire hangers, and a belt, starved them, and even urinated on them.”

    Links: Slavery in the News

    Mexican flags flying in the wind

    • Energy Publisher: Human trafficking begins to eclipse drug trade in Mexico: “Unfortunately, [Mexico's President] Calderón’s attack on drug cartels has left few resources to combat human trafficking. Mexico has tried to address the issue through legal changes to combat trafficking as recently as 2007, when ‘federal legislation to prohibit all forms of drug trafficking’ was passed. Nonetheless, according to the U.S. Department of State’s Trafficking of Persons Report 2010, ‘some local officials tolerate and are sometimes complicit in trafficking, impeding the implementation of anti-trafficking statutes.’”

    Read about University of Michigan’s Law School opening a new legal clinic in Mexico.

    • CTV: In Winnipeg, Canada, MP Honors Survivors of Human Trafficking: “Timea Nagy was the daughter of police officer in Budapest, Hungry. In 1998, she answered an ad to be a nanny in Toronto, but when she arrived the ‘agency’ that brought her to Canada made her work at a strip club and in the sex trade instead… ‘You don’t know who to trust and you don’t know anything about Canada or the Canadian people. The only thing you know is what they’re telling you in your own language, which is Canadians are going to take you and rape you and kill you,’ Nagy said. Nagy rescued herself after two and a half months by buying a dictionary to learn English and getting help from other employees at the strip club.”

    Read about Canada launching a major human trafficking awareness campaign.

    • The Nation: The Wall Comes Tumbling Down: “At a news conference on a farm outside of Immokalee in southwest Florida, Jon Esformes, operating partner of the fourth-generation, family-owned Pacific Tomato Growers—one of the five largest growers in the nation with more than 14,000 acres in the US and Mexico—declared, “In a free society, few are guilty, but all are responsible.” And with that he announced an agreement with the 4000-memberCoalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) to implement a penny per pound pay raise—which stands to increase workers’ annual earnings from about $10,000 to as much as $17,000—and establish a code of conduct that includes an external complaint resolution system, shade and protective equipment in the fields, and a worker-to-worker education process on their rights under the new agreement.

    Read how “Miguel” was enslaved in Florida’s orange groves, and found freedom with the help of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers.

    Links: Slavery in the News

    • New York PostAccused St. John’s embezzler allegedly used students as slaves. Cecilia Chang, former Dean of Asian Studies at St. John’s University in New York is “accused of using scholarship students as domestic servants. Chang, 57, allegedly forced students to do her laundry, clean her house, cook and chauffeur her son around. ‘Chang threatened the students and placed them in fear that if they refused to perform these personal services they would lose their scholarships and be unable to attend St. John’s,’ FBI Special Agent Kenneth Hosey wrote in the arrest warrant.”
    • WTOP: Mo. girl sues Village Voice Media over sex ads: “A girl who ran away from home and became a prostitute at age 14 is suing Village Voice Media, accusing the newspaper conglomerate of knowingly allowing her pimp to advertise her sexual services on one of its companies’ websites… In her lawsuit, the girl claims that backpage.com, a website similar to Craigslist that is owned by Village Voice Media, knew prostitution was being facilitated on the site but did nothing to stop it.”
    • TampaBay.com: 70 percent” of child sex trafficking victims are foster kids: “In 2008, FBI agent Gregory Christopher helped launch a task force aimed at rescuing children from prostitution… [he says], ‘A lot of these kids are foster kids, runaway kids. There’s not a lot of people looking out for them. I’d say about 70 percent or so are foster kids. We work closely with DCF (the Department of Children and Families).’”

    Links: Slavery in the News

    • Blogging and anti-slavery come together as one! Via PR Web: First annual bloggers soiree to benefit anti-sex trafficking organization: “Bloggers and anti-human trafficking advocates will take over the Lower East Side Monday, September 27 at Libation NY for the First Annual Bloggers Soiree hosted by DesireeFrieson.com, RedRoverStyle.com and HerJourneyMag.com… 25% of proceeds from this event will go to benefit Restore NYC, a non-profit organization providing long-term aftercare services to international sex trafficked victims in the city. Last month, Restore NYC launched their ‘Brick by Brick’campaign which aims to raise $50,000 to build a safe house in New York City for sex trafficked survivors.”
    • TDN.com: Exploited minors need our help, not punishment: Last week Linda Smith, founder of Shared Hope International testified at the House subcommittee on sex trafficking of minors. “Sex-trafficking victims, whose average initial exploitation age is 13, are often treated as juvenile delinquents or adult prostitutes by the criminal justice system. ‘Those who are identified as minors are frequently charged with a delinquent act, either prostitution-related activities or a related offense such as drug possession,’ Smith explained. That treatment, Smith added, only compounds the trauma of sexual violence the minor has already experienced.

    Read Freedom Award winner Tina Frundt’s testimony at this same hearing. Frundt, a survivor of childhood sex trafficking, says “Every pimp has a MySpace page.”

    • TheLedger.com: A South Florida couple guilty of human trafficking: “Sophia Manuel and Alfonso Baldonado Jr. schemed to force Filipino nationals to work in South Florida country clubs and hotels and threatened them with deportation. In exchange, they were offered little or no pay, and inadequate food or water.”