In Florida, the human rights crisis engulfing farm labor is perhaps most starkly visible. Tomato pickers have received virtually the same harvesting piece rate since 1980: 40-50 cents for every 32-pound bucket they fill. At this rate, workers must pick and haul a staggering 2.5 tons of tomatoes in order to earn minimum wage for a typical 10-hour day. Decades of class-action lawsuits have exposed a pattern of systematic minimum wage violations, and supervisor violence in the fields is not unheard of.
In November 2007, three farmworkers in Immokalee – the heart of Florida’s winter tomato production – escaped from more than a year of bondage after punching through the ventilation hatch in a box truck where they were held captive by their employers. In total, a dozen workers were forced to pick tomatoes by day and then chained, beaten, and robbed of their pay at night in one of southwest Florida’s “biggest, ugliest slavery cases ever,” according to U.S. Attorney Doug Molloy.
The enslaved crew harvested for farms owned by two of Florida’s largest tomato growers. It was the seventh farm labor slavery case prosecuted by federal civil rights officials since 1997, now involving well over 1,000 workers. All of which brings us to a question posed by Eric Schlosser at last year’s Slow Food Nation conference: “Does it matter whether an heirloom tomato is local and organic if it was harvested with slave labor?”