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Misery in the tomato fields

(article, Kim Carlson)

Many people stay away from fresh tomatoes during the winter because they seem like little more than hard, costly, flavorless orbs. But here's another reason to avoid them: Barry Estabrook, writing in Gourmet, reminds us that many winter tomatoes are harvested by slaves.

Estabrook went to Florida to investigate the lives of people harvesting winter tomatoes there. He learned that many of these workers are illegal, and thus unprotected, workers who came to the U.S. hoping to earn money to send home to their families. Instead, they find themselves at the mercy of unscrupulous bosses who house them in filthy accommodations and charge exorbitant rents; whatever small pay they receive goes toward health care, transportation, and food. 

Estabrook interviewed Douglas Molloy, the chief assistant U.S. attorney based in Fort Myers, Florida, who says this virtual slavery is widespread.

bq. Gerardo Reyes, a former picker who is now an employee of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), a 4,000-member organization that provides the only voice for the field hands, agrees. Far from being an anomaly, Reyes told \[Estabrook\], slavery is a symptom of a vast system of labor abuses. Involuntary servitude represents just one rung on a grim ladder of exploitation. Reyes said that the victims of this system come to Florida for one reason — to send money to their families back home. “But when they get here, it’s all they can do to keep themselves alive with rent, transportation, food. Poverty and misery are the perfect recipe for slavery.”

To learn more about this issue, visit the CIW website.