by Jeffrey Buchanan, Guest Contributor

Last Tuesday, Chairman Edward Kennedy and Sen. Bernie Sanders of the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions held a hearing on modern-day slavery, persistent labor abuses and stagnant sub-poverty wages facing farmworkers in Florida's tomato fields. Two hundred years after the U.S. Congress banned the transatlantic slave trade and 150 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, America is still dealing with human trafficking of workers on our soil and an agricultural industry dependent on unspeakable labor practices standing in the way of human rights and social justice.

The hearing included testimony from Lucas Benitez (in photo), co-founder of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and winner of the 2003 Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award. The CIW is a membership organization of migrant farmworkers, with over 4,000 members in Immokalee, the heart of Florida's fruit and vegetable industry, and elsewhere around the country. Immokalee and the surrounding portions of Florida are also where the majority of U.S.-grown tomatoes come from during the winter months.

As you read this article, chances are you have a Florida-grown tomato in your pantry. Chances also are, according to testimony of Detective Charlie Frost, investigator for the human trafficking unit at the Collier County Sheriff's Office, that as you read this article human trafficking is occurring in Florida's agricultural fields. Katrina vanden Heuvel and Greg Kaufmann at TheNation.com chronicled Frost's response to Sen. Sanders after being asked if he believed modern day slavery, also called human trafficking, was occurring "as we speak" in Florida's fields.
"It's probably occurring right now while we sit here," Frost said. "Almost assuredly it's going on right now."

"Detective, would you agree that in these slavery cases, there are people higher up the economic chain who are complicit and who benefit financially from what goes on?" Sanders asked. "[And if so,] do you believe we need to change the law to prevent the growers from shielding themselves from responsibility?"

"They isolate themselves from what is occurring, and they benefit from what's going on," Frost said. "We have to do something. We have to hold them accountable. This is occurring in their backyard, this is occurring in our fields, this is occurring in our country."
Tomato growers and those who purchase their produce have isolated themselves from the consequences of these abuses. Reggie Brown of the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange (FTGE), an industry group representing growers whose harvests account for 90 percent of Florida's tomatoes, and Roy Renya, a management-level employee of Grangier Farms, a local tomato grower, testified they had never seen such cases in their fields, despite the seven indictments of forced labor (of which at least three cases involved tomato pickers) in Florida involving over 1,000 workers in recent years. Six of those cases were brought to light by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in cooperation with local and federal law enforcement, earning the CIW a commendation from FBI Director Robert Mueller.

Not only has the FTGE denied involvement, but indeed now they are rejecting a real solution offered by the workers to these deplorable working conditions. CIW in recent years has led historic campaigns, with the help of allies like the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Center for Human Rights, to rally consumers and negotiate human rights based agreements with fast food industry leaders Yum! Brands and McDonald's. These agreements called for the creation of a third-party monitoring system protecting against labor abuses and for these purchasers to agree to pass a penny per pound of tomatoes purchased directly to workers who picked the produce.

Unfortunately, the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange has worked to thwart the implementation of these agreements, claiming they opted out for business reasons and fear legal liability under anti-trust and racketeering laws.

On the business front, the agreements would not cost growers a penny. The FTGE had implemented surcharges on tomatoes in the past for purchasers similar to the penny per a pound on three different occasions -- for chemicals, palletizing shipments and for fuel. As Lucas Benitez testified, "The only difference with our agreement would be that instead of Monsanto or Exxon getting paid, the money would go to impoverished workers."

As for the legal fears, during the hearing Sen. Sanders introduced a letter from 26 law professors and statements from two major "white shoe" law firms with major anti-trust practices, both stating that these concerns are without legal merit.

So why would the FTGE keep up its campaign to railroad these agreements? Vanden Heuvel and Kaufmann on TheNation.com put it best:
"Indeed, it's not too much of a stretch to view [Reggie] Brown [FTGE president] and his cohorts as 21st century George Wallaces or Bull Connors, standing in the way of the progress of human rights in our own nation."
As Wallace and Connor stood between civil rights activists and progress towards Dr. Martin Luther King's vision of "the beloved community," today FTGE stands in the way of implementing human rights-based agreements taking steps towards creating more dignified working conditions in Florida's fields. Still FTGE dares to call itself a "progressive" industry.

In response to this standstill, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and their supporters in the Alliance for Fair Food have begun a campaign modeled after the tactics of 19th century abolitionists who led what amounted to the world's first human rights campaign which later abolished the slave trade. Their petition urges Burger King, the Florida Tomatoes Growers Exchange and food industry leaders to cooperate with the farmworkers to improve the wages and conditions for the workers who pick their tomatoes, and join an industry-wide effort to eliminate modern-day slavery and human rights abuses from Florida's fields.

Farmworkers have reached out to labor leaders, human rights activists, churches, and students. Supporters across the country have begun educating their communities on the conditions in Immokalee and how this relates to their trips to the grocery store or the salad bar or the sandwiches they purchase for lunch.

You can read more about their effort and sign the petition here.

(Jeffrey Buchanan is the communications director for the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Center for Human Rights. He notes that another great way to support grassroots human rights activists -- including the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and groups like ACORN in New Orleans, as well as leaders in Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Chad and Darfur -- is by bidding at charitybuzz.com during the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Online Auction.)

(Photo of Sen. Edward Kennedy and Lucas Benitez of Coalition of Immokalee Workers from CIW's Web site)