Slavery in the Fields


José Vasquez couldn’t stand any more.

On November 19, he and two other workers escaped through a ventilation hatch in the box trailer where they had been locked up for the night. For more than a year, the three immigrants and a dozen more were forced to work for the Navarrete family picking tomatoes in Immokalee, Fla.

They were made to pay $20 for “housing”–a locked van where they had to defecate in the corner–as well as $50 a week for food and $5 to take a shower in the backyard with a garden hose.

Earning just 45 cents for every bucket of tomatoes they picked in the blistering Florida sun for some 12 hours a day, the men were in perpetual debt to their captors. And the fear of deportation made defying the men who held them seem even more impossible. Any identifying documents they once had were locked away.

When investigators finally arrived a week later, they found the other workers bloody, bruised and beaten–a regular state of affairs, according to the workers. Mariano Lucas, one of the workers who escaped, told investigators he tried to take a day off a few weeks previously, and was beaten until he bled. One man had badly swollen wrists from being chained with his hands behind his back every night.

There’s only one way to describe this abuse, according to Chief Assistant U.S. Attorney Doug Molloy: “Slavery, plain and simple.”

No one disputes that slavery–abolished 150 years ago in the U.S.–is one of the ugliest chapters in American history. Yet just under the surface of the modern-day image of the U.S. as a beacon of democracy is an ugly secret: that slavery still thrives for thousands of workers.

Under the modern slave system, workers aren’t bought and sold on the open market, as they once were in the U.S. South–but rather they were smuggled into the country and forced to work, all just beneath the radar of government officials and the public.

Last year’s incident at Immokalee marked the seventh farm labor operation to be prosecuted for servitude in Florida–involving well over 1,000 workers and more than a dozen employers–in the past decade.

In 2004, for example, Ramiro and Juan Ramos were sentenced to 15 years each in federal prison on slavery and firearms charges. They threatened the 700 farmworkers under their control with death if they tried to leave, and pistol-whipped passenger van service drivers who gave rides to farmworkers leaving the area.

By and large, though, it’s these small-time extortionists who are punished for modern-day slavery in America–while the big corporations who ultimately profit from slave-like labor stand above the fray.

And profit they do. “The food sector (food, groceries, food processing, and restaurant businesses together) is worth about a trillion dollars a year in the U.S. and is second only to pharmaceuticals in profitability,” writes journalist John Bowe in his book Nobodies: Modern American Slave Labor and the Dark Side of the New Global Economy.

“Considering that the American public gives some $47 billion per year in direct subsidies to agricultural producers and billions more in tax breaks, research allocations to university, marketing initiatives…it is blind idiocy or willful deceit to say the money just isn’t there.”

Through activism on the part of farmworkers themselves and a fierce and creative public boycott campaign, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) last year forced McDonald’s, the world’s biggest restaurant chain, and Yum!, which owns KFC, Pizza Hut and Taco Bell, to pay pickers another penny per pound of tomatoes.

Today, Burger King, which also buys its tomatoes in Immokalee, is refusing to follow suit. Burger King’s intransigence was backed up by the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange, which last year threatened a $100,000 fine for any grower who agrees to an extra penny per pound for pickers’ wages.

As Eric Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation, pointed out in the New York Times, “Telling Burger King to pay an extra penny for tomatoes and provide a decent wage to migrant workers would hardly bankrupt the company. Indeed, it would cost Burger King only $250,000 a year…

“In 2006, the bonuses of the top 12 Goldman Sachs executives exceeded $200 million–more than twice as much money as all of the roughly 10,000 tomato pickers in southern Florida earned that year.”

The fast-food giant’s excuse? The CIW “has gone after us because we are a known brand,” complained Burger King vice president Steve Grover. “At the end of the day, we don’t employ the farmworkers, so how can we pay them?”

This is how the big guys keep their hands clean of the dirty work of paying sub-minimum wages–and enslaving other human beings.

In some cases, slave-like conditions are perfectly legal, since labor laws almost always favor the employer, particularly in the agricultural industry.

Speaking of the U.S. bracero program from 1942 to 1964, under which millions of Mexican workers were imported and contracted out to U.S. growers and ranchers, even the U.S. Department of Labor officer in charge of the program, Lee Williams, described it as a system of “legalized slavery.”

When the program was shut down, migrant workers could still be brought into the U.S. under the H-2 program, or the guest-worker system–under which workers are only provided with a visa when they have an employer, therefore keeping them at the mercy of emloyers.

As a 2007 report from the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), Close to Slavery: Guest Worker Programs in the U.S., states, “Under the current system, called the H-2 program, employers brought about 121,000 guest workers into the U.S. in 2005–approximately 32,000 for agricultural work and another 89,000 for jobs in forestry, seafood processing, landscaping, construction and other non-agricultural industries.

“These workers, though, are not treated like ‘guests.’ Rather, they are systematically exploited and abused. Unlike U.S. citizens, guest workers do not enjoy the most fundamental protection of a competitive labor market–the ability to change jobs if they are mistreated. Instead, they are bound to the employers who ‘import’ them. If guest workers complain about abuses, they face deportation, blacklisting or other retaliation.”

When their work visas expire, H-2 employees must leave the U.S.–making them, in the words of the SPLC, “the disposable workers of the U.S. economy.”

Often, workers are recruited overseas, with recruiters’ fees ranging anywhere from $500 to $10,000 for travel visas and other costs. Add to this exorbitant interest rates, sometimes as high as 20 percent a month, and it’s obvious that workers are arriving in the U.S. with debts they can’t possibly pay off with jobs that pay very little, typically less than the federal minimum wage.

In some cases, recruiters threaten to harm to the families of the workers if payments are missed. The workers are trapped in a terrifying downward spiral.

Nelson Ramirez, a forestry worker from Guatemala, described to the SPLC what happened when he signed up to work for Eller and Sons Trees in 2001. A labor recruiter required that his wife sign a paper agreeing to be responsible if he were to break his contract.

“I didn’t understand exactly what this threat meant, but knew that my wife would have to sign if I was going to get the visa,” Ramirez said. “The work was very hard, but I worried about leaving, because my wife signed this form to get me the job.”

Abuse of workers–including human trafficking and slavery conditions–have been reported in a surprising variety of jobs. Among the cases documented in a 2007 report from the California Alliance to Combat Trafficking and Slavery (CA ACTS) Task Force were 48 Thai welders hired through Kota Manpower of Thailand and Los Angeles and forced live in squalor, working for little or no pay.

In September 2004, Nena Jimeno Ruiz was lured to LA from the Philippines under false pretenses, forced to work 18-hour days at the home of an executive at Sony Pictures, sleep on a dog bed and threatened with never seeing her family again if she complained.

In 2001, Victoria Island Farms settled a civil lawsuit that resulted in the payment of back wages to workers who were forced to harvest asparagus in substandard conditions for virtually no pay. Hired by a farm labor contractor, the workers, recruited mostly from Mexico, were powerless to stop huge deductions for transportation and other “debts” that the employer took from their weekly paychecks.

The U.S. State Department estimates that approximately 80 percent of people trafficked from other countries are women and girls, and up to 50 percent are minors. Members of “Lideres Campesinas,” an agricultural worker women’s organization based in Pomona, Calif., told the CA ACTS Task Force that foremen often prey on immigrant women, abuse them and sexually assault them. The women say that if they complained, they would be deported, and their families in their home countries would be victimized.

Immigrants are the most vulnerable to these attacks on their basic freedoms–and the least protected by the U.S. government.

Typically, law enforcement officials are charged with protecting the rights of those being abused–and they are the least capable of handling the job. On the contrary, they are more likely to be viewed–for good reason–as the enemies of undocumented immigrants, making them the last people workers would seek out for help.

In the end, undocumented workers are the ones treated like criminals.

The U.S. government is ill-equipped and apparently uninterested in seeking out these all-too-common incidents of abuse. At best, it turns the other way when abuses occur; more often, it is part of the problem, as the threat of deportation hangs heavy over the heads of workers too afraid to seek help.

If we are going to abolish modern-day slavery, we have to look to the struggles from below that won workers’ rights in the past.

The Immokalee workers are modeling their struggle against slavery in the Florida fields on the first abolitionist movement, with a national petition drive marking the bicentennial of the U.S. ban on importing slaves and a vow to stop modern-day slavery.

And in Pascagoula, 100 immigrant guest workers from India took a page from the civil rights movement when they walked out over the slave-like conditions at a Signal International shipyard on March 6–holding signs the read “I Am a Man” like those carried by striking Black sanitation workers in Memphis in 1968.

“We need to change this system to one that helps the employees who are suffering, not the employers,” said Signal worker Sabulal Vijayan.

ELIZABETH SCHULTE writes for the Socialist Worker.