A Shameful Harvest

The vast majority of America's farm laborers are immigrants, many of them undocumented. Farm work is notoriously dangerous, arduous and toxic; the average U.S. farmworker has a life expectancy of just 49 years. Farm laborers are generally paid piecework rates. Their average earnings are $7,500 a year, or $150 a week, by far the lowest wage of any occupation. Most farm laborers are denied overtime pay, medical insurance, sick leave or the right to organize. In many states they're excluded from workers' compensation and unemployment benefits. Of the more than 1 million farmworkers in this country, only about 27,000 are unionized.

Growers insist that they need a plentiful supply of immigrants because Americans aren't interested in hard work. A more accurate statement is that few Americans will perform hard work for $150 a week. A vicious cycle emerges: Growers rely on economically desperate immigrants, who are forced to accept meager wages, and workers in marginal situations are unable to organize and force the industry to normalize its relations with workers.

The historical rationale has always been that farming is too unprofitable to pay decent wages. In other words, farmworker abuse is somehow simply intrinsic to the business. One wonders why agribusiness bothered to invest in such an unsuccessful industry, and how agribusiness giants such as ConAgra, Cargill and Archer Daniels Midland have come to prosper. The food industry is currently America's second-most profitable (after pharmaceuticals). Agriculture also runs a large export surplus, yet labor conditions remain dismal as ever. Why? Because since the end of chattel slavery, agriculture has successfully promoted an aura of exceptionalism and has persuaded government to ignore or collude in its mistreatment of workers.

The 1935 Wagner Act, allowing workers to organize unions without interference from employers, and the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act both excluded farmworkers. By the time the minimum-wage law was finally extended to agricultural workers in 1966, growers had already developed byzantine piecework schemes to evade its intent.

The U.S. Department of Justice is now investigating 120 slavery cases, most involving migrant workers and women forced into prostitution. In southwest Florida alone, five slavery cases have been prosecuted since 1997. Four years ago a Mexican labor contractor was caught holding at least 27 illegal Mexican aliens against their will. Federal agents were alerted by farmworkers who had fled the run-down trailers where they were held until their debts to smugglers were paid.

In 1997, Miguel Flores of LaBelle, Fla., and his assistant, Sebastian Gomez of Immokalee, were arrested on charges of involuntary servitude. Flores, a labor contractor, controlled thousands of workers in labor camps between Florida and South Carolina, charging his laborers exorbitant prices for food and housing and thus ensuring their continued indebtedness. Workers were forced to work six days a week, netting only $12 to $15 a day. Women camp residents were occasionally raped by crew bosses. Flores warned his workers that if they complained, he would cut their tongues out.

Flores and Gomez were eventually caught, but what's impressive is that they were allowed to operate in the first place. Flores had an arrest record in Florida and South Carolina. The Caloosa Belle, the newspaper serving his hometown, regularly printed letters from citizens complaining about daytime shootouts occurring at a downtown bar between Flores and ex- or alienated guards who had worked with him. Moreover, rumors persisted from the late 1980s to the mid-'90s that Flores and his crew had committed numerous murders, dumping bodies into the Caloosahatchie River to make the deaths look like accidents. Charges were never brought, but, as one local police officer put it, "When Flores left the area, the rash of drownings stopped occurring." Despite this reputation, however, Flores had been permitted by the state to run his business for years and entrusted to handle payrolls worth hundreds of thousands of dollars for enormous private and public firms.

Why do such flagrantly and cartoonishly abusive characters as Flores and Gomez operate at all? Because they can. In the face of disproportionate political power wielded by agribusiness and business-friendly, labor-blind politicians, existing labor laws are weak and their enforcement weaker.

An enslaved or abused worker who dials 911 in south Florida is answered by an English-only speaking dispatcher. Call the Department of Labor's Wage and Hour Division in Fort Myers, Fla., and a prerecorded message enumerates in English bureaucratese the few types of complaints the office does handle (and the many it doesn't). The recording further explains that the office has no full-time staff and that it's open only once a week, on Wednesdays, for half a day.

Earlier this year, Gov. Jeb Bush partly dismantled Florida's Department of Labor, for reasons of "efficiency." Last year the newly "streamlined" department's farm-labor and labor-contractor staff issued (statewide) 188 violations, for a variety of offenses regarding insurance and paperwork improperly filed by labor contractors. Only a few of these involved failure to pay wages. By contrast, 107 citations were written for improperly labeled or sized tomatoes. In other words, many more citations were written for imperfect fruit than for workers being improperly housed, beaten, stiffed or enslaved.

The Bush administration's proposed 2004 budget for the Department of Labor reflects the steepest reduction in funding of any cabinet agency. It would eliminate the National Farmworker Jobs Program, which has a budget of $81 million for migrant and seasonal farmworker programs. The effect is a bit like kicking a corpse. A typical example of federal justice: The U.S. Department of Labor cited a large North Carolina tobacco and sweet-potato farm in 1999 for cheating workers an aggregate $100,000 in wages. The grower was fined -- $650. In 1996, after intensive lobbying from the agriculture industry, Congress prohibited the country's Rural Legal Services from representing undocumented workers -- that is, those workers most likely to be abused.

What's important to understand is that for each case of slavery (or other sensational, headline-grabbing abuses that come to light), there are tens of thousands of workers living in dismal conditions. As Laura Germino, a south Florida farmworker advocate explained, "Slavery is to lynching as farmworker conditions are to civil rights. Yes, you want to uncover and prevent the few cases that happen each year. But even more importantly, you want to address the entire system of human-rights abuse that makes slavery possible."

Last year Florida shipped about $491 million worth of tomatoes, according to the Florida Tomato Committee. Growers earned about 34 cents a pound, on average, in the last two years. Florida tomato pickers earn between 40 and 50 cents per 32-pound bucket -- a price that has remained largely unchanged since the 1970s. The pickers' shares come out to roughly 1.4 cents per pound.

I recently surveyed produce costs in my Manhattan neighborhood, where retail prices for domestic fresh tomatoes ranged from 69 cents in low-end stores to $1.75 a pound in boutiques. So, depending on which store I choose, pickers get between 1 percent and 2 percent of what I pay for a retail tomato.

Farmworker advocates in south Florida have long urged Taco Bell and other fast-food chains to voluntarily pay an extra penny per pound for tomatoes. This surcharge would then be passed along to tomato pickers and would literally double their wages. Taco Bell has stated that it has no place intervening in local labor disputes.

By contrast, growers think nothing of passing along other costs. Last December, according to The Packer, a trade paper for the produce industry, Florida's tomato producers responded to an increase in the price of methyl bromide, a common pesticide, by passing on a penny per pound surcharge. The price increase was accepted with equanimity as a simple cost of doing business. The Packer quoted one tomato salesman as saying, "There's been virtually no opposition to it." The article went on to quote the president of a large packing house, who said, "I guess [buyers] knew when the Florida tomato shippers decided to do something, and it was unanimous, they didn't have much choice anyway."

What would it cost to pay all farmworkers decently? About 1 percent or 2 percent of the national grocery bill. The retail food industry is famous for large markups at each stage of wholesaling, transportation, preparation and packaging, and retailing. In 2000, U.S. consumers spent $661 billion on food. Of that, only 19 percent went to growers themselves. The rest, 81 percent, went to wholesalers, manufacturers, retailers and restaurants. It would require a raise of $3,203 a year for every farmworker today to earn the minimum wage. This would cost the average American household about $50 per year.

Since the 1970s, the public has demanded that Congress pass laws to protect the physical environment. While there's been a lot of grumbling, deception, greenmailing and exporting of "dirty" industry to less regulated countries, it's undeniable that businesses here in the United States are now forced to consider environmental factors as part of the cost of doing business. While environmentally abusive industrial methods might produce cheaper consumer products, that option is no longer considered acceptable.

The only thing unique about farm labor is that industry gets away with wage slavery that has long since been abolished elsewhere in the economy. Why isn't human misery considered part of the environment? Is it acceptable to eat food that comes from a system consigning its ranks to slavery, rape and early death via carcinogenic pesticides?

Autoworkers have their problems with wages, outsourcing, health and pension benefits, and layoffs. But you don't hear about slavery in the automobile industry because workers there, and in most industries, have basic labor rights. With a shift in political priorities and national policies, immigrant farm workers could be paid a living wage -- and consumers would hardly notice.