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Michael Miller

Viewpoint

By Michael Miller
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Food Fight: Fare Must Be Fair

Maybe all of us wear clothing or use electronics or a hundred other things manufactured in conditions we wouldn’t tolerate for our children or in our communities. We choose not to live hidden away in caves, and for important items for which there are few obvious alternatives we can put our heads down and plow through our day and make another small compromise with the world.

Most of us don’t want someone to die or endure suffering for our pleasure. Many of us draw our own lines regarding non-critical products. Most readers would not knowingly purchase “conflict diamonds,” which have helped fund murderous civil wars in Africa.

How about slavery tomatoes?

This is not a joke, or an exaggeration. Since 1997, law enforcement officials have prosecuted at least seven major slavery cases involving workers in Florida tomato fields. These cases freed more than 1,000 men and women who had been sold to crew bosses and forced to work against their will, sometimes held in chains and locked into shacks at night. While a few low-paid field managers have been jailed, field owners strolled away without being charged. Most slavery situations go unreported, unnoticed, unknown.

Though “free trade” has led to increased imports from cheaper Mexican greenhouses in the winter, the vast majority of the tomatoes we buy between May and December come from Florida. The biggest Florida packers ship $600 million worth of tomatoes to restaurant and grocery chains each year.

The epicenter of the Florida tomato industry is the unincorporated community of Immokalee, in Collier County off the Gulf. It was here that the Coalition of Immokalee Workers was founded. Calling itself a “community-based worker organization,” CIW is organized around a philosophy of public education and development of local leaders. Though CIW is made up mostly of Latino, Mayan Indian and Haitian immigrants working in low-wage jobs across Florida, it’s Fair Food campaign has captured the imagination and the support of a broad range of Americans.

CIW has worked peacefully and effectively to modernize working conditions in many harvest and packing operations. In April, CIW was credited with inspiring the first-ever White House Forum to Combat Human Trafficking, which brought together private sector, government, religious and academic leaders to discuss what can be done to end a scourge in which tens of millions of human beings are trapped. Many are children forced into hard labor or sex trafficking.

The Fair Food program requires an additional penny in wages for each pound of Florida tomatoes picked. That small amount can mean a raise of 60 percent to some workers.

It burns me that so little media coverage was given to the CIW protest in Union Square, Manhattan, last week. Hundreds of actual farm workers came to New York complete with bands, street singers and street theater, educating locals and tourists about conditions in many of the Florida tomato fields. But also, they were educating those attending Wendy’s annual stockholders meeting.

Wendy’s is the last holdout among the biggest fast-food chains to sign onto the Fair Food program. Since 2005, Burger King, Chipotle Grill, McDonald’s, Subway and Taco Bell have signed. So have Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods and some of the largest grocery and food service chains.

Some retailers have argued that their job is to keep their restaurants clean and shiny, to keep the dollar value menu as large as possible and to not worry about where the ingredients come from. Certainly their own employees are not beaten by goons or enslaved, and their responsibility ends there. This doesn’t concern anyone outside the sun-baked Florida fields.

Or does it?

Michael Miller is a freelance writer, designer and strategic consultant who has worked in state and local government. Email: millercolumn@optimum.net