The cruelty of modern-day slavery in U.S. farm fields

In a dehumanizing federal case, five members of the same family in Immokalee Fla. pleaded guilty Sept. 2 to enslaving Mexican and Guatemalan farmworkers for more than two years. Slavery in the U.S. has been banned for more than 130 years.

In a 17-count indictment, members of the Navarette family exploited more than a dozen men, brutalizing and abusing them during captivity as the workers were forced to sleep in boxes, shacks and trucks on the family’s property. The family scheme, which operated for private financial gain, enslaved immigrant workers in North Carolina, South Carolina and Florida farm fields.

Workers were told they would earn a minimal wage but were driven into ever-increasing debt by the Navarette family who chained, beat and threatened physical abuse on the workers if they tried to leave. Each worker was charged for his meal and shower and they were told to urinate and defecate in outside corners near their sleeping areas. According to the indictment, they were never paid.

Last January several of the workers escaped from a ventilation hatch in a locked box truck in Immokalee and managed to find their way to the local authorities. Soon after their horror stories were revealed, federal agencies began to investigate the case including the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division.

The shocking news and guilty pleas has motivated farmworker groups to continue fighting for their rights, prompting lawmakers and news agencies in support of immigration reform that includes better wages and working conditions and new laws that protect workers with or without papers.

Leaders of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), a farmworker advocacy group, helped crack the case and has played a prominent role in assisting federal civil rights officials prosecute at least five previous slave cases since 1997 freeing more than 1,000 workers.

In a statement, Gerardo Reyes, leader with CIW said, “The facts that have been reported in this case are beyond outrage – workers being beaten, tied to posts, and chained and locked into trucks to prevent them from leaving their boss. How many more workers have to be held against their will before the food industry steps up to the plate and demands that this never – ever – occurs again in the produce that ends up on America’s tables?”

After a federal plea deal was made Cesar and Geovanni Navarette, the two main ringleaders of the slave operation will likely serve 12 years in prison and pay fines from 750,000 to $1 million each. Their official sentencing, which includes three other people, is expected at the end of the year.

The News-Press in a recent editorial congratulated Chief Assistant Attorney Doug Molloy and other anti-slavery crusaders for their work on the case. News-Press is urging Molloy and other farmworker advocates to “carry on this work against all forms of slavery and human trafficking.”

The editorial adds, “Comprehensive immigration reform, including a path to legal residency and citizenship for certain workers, is also necessary to bring this shameful plague to an end.” So long as agriculture relies on undocumented labor, “a culture of human exploitation and disrespect for the law will prevail, so we can eat slightly cheaper food and certain people can pocket extra profit. Disrespect for human beings is in the DNA of the current system. Respect demands that we legalize the foreign labor we clearly need to harvest our crops,” said News-Press.

In a statement Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said, “While slavery is, of course, the most extreme situation in the tomato fields, the truth is that the average worker there is being ruthlessly exploited. Tomato pickers perform backbreaking work, make very low wages, have no benefits and virtually no labor protections.” Sanders is a member of the Senate Labor Committee as well as the Health, Education, Labor and Pension Committee and plans to introduce legislation which will end a loophole in current law which enables growers to avoid taking responsibility for what happens on their fields when workers are being enslaved.

Most agricultural workers in Florida work during the peek season between each December and May. The state grows nearly the entire crop of fresh tomatoes that are bought by restaurants and supermarkets throughout the country. To say the least, most tomato workers in Florida who harvest the crop are almost entirely mistreated and exploited in many instances, critics say.

Historically farmworkers have been and continue to be excluded from U.S. fair labor standards and are prevented from unionizing. Most farm owners hire contractors, or crew bosses, to hire, pay, provide shelter for, and transportation of workers, which allows actual growers off the hook and free from any wrongdoing.

Florida’s leading lawmakers including Republicans Gov. Charlie Crist and former Gov. Jeb Bush and certain communities throughout the state have shown little interest or no support at all on this or previous worker-abuse cases. In fact former Gov. Bush and his emissary openly criticized CIW for its work.

In the last three years CIW has won groundbreaking agreements in support of tomato workers with several fast-food chains – Yum Brands, McDonald’s and Burger King to pay a penny more per pound to workers harvesting the crop. Most recently CIW and its allies have won the support of Whole Foods who have agreed to similar terms. But the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange continues to dismiss the agreements and refuses to abide by them. Nevertheless, CIW feels changing the way business is done is crucial to eradicating modern-day slavery cases and overall worker injustice in the fields.