Ending Slavery and Sweatshops in Florida’s Fields

Petitioning the King

“Slavery, plain and simple.” That´s how Chief Assistant U.S. Attorney Doug Malloy described the most recent instance of forced labor uncovered in Florida agriculture.

An indictment released in January, for a case still under prosecution, states that as recently as late November, crew leaders for a tomato operation in Immokalee, Florida were holding a group of men against their will — chaining them down, beating them, and locking them within a U-haul truck. The accused face charges of indentured servitude and peonage.

The men were kept on a property five blocks from the office of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), a dynamic farmworker organization that won the 2007 Anti-Slavery Award, given by London-based Anti-Slavery International, the oldest human rights organization in the world.

The CIW has investigated, uncovered, and assisted federal officials in the successful prosecution of six slavery cases over the last decade — involving upwards of 1,000 people held against their will. And this case may soon be the seventh.

The CIW is doubtlessly best known, however, for forcing McDonald’s and Yum Brands — the planet’s largest fast food chain and restaurant company, respectively — to confront human rights abuses in the fields where they buy their tomatoes.

And so while 2008 marks the (curiously un-commemorated) bicentennial of social movements triggering the US ban on the importation of enslaved Africans, slavery clearly continues to thrive.


The impossibility of simply legislating an end to the practice of enslavement is all the more evident when we consider modern corporate power: we live in an era where the majority of the world’s 100 largest economies are corporations, not governments.

Corporate influence is unquestionably prominent in our lives. Large, profit-seeking amalgams of capitalists exert unprecedented control over our daily experience — from the quality of the water we drink and the air we breathe, to our access to affordable and livable housing, and the way in which our food is produced.

While the CIW focused attention primarily on tomato growers as a solution to the violence and poverty they faced in the 1990s, their targets today are the major multinational corporations that buy massive volumes of tomatoes. After all, these corporations are profiting more than anyone from the reprehensible conditions in Florida’s fields, including — in the most odious expression of the tomato industry´s everyday exploitation — human enslavement.

An Oxfam Report dated March 2004, “Like Machines in the Fields: Workers Without Rights in American Agriculture”, documents that while growers netted 41% of the retail price of tomatoes in 1990, by 2000 they were barely receiving one quarter. By purchasing huge quantities of tomatoes, fast food and grocery corporations wield tremendous power over small and large growers alike.

Growers cannot prevent the rising costs of gas, tractors, fertilizers, and so on; the one place they can control expenses is in how much they pay tomato pickers. Accordingly, due to the squeeze imposed on growers by multinational food corporations, tomato pickers’ wages have remained essentially stagnant for 30 years, despite inflation.

Precisely one year after the Oxfam report’s release, and three years after a CIW-led boycott, Taco Bell conceded to CIW demands for higher wages and a supplier code of conduct. Never in the history of capitalism had a multinational corporation agreed to pay extra money down its supply chain to directly address the sub-poverty wages of workers at the opposite end.

The Taco Bell precedent tolled for the entire fast food and restaurant industry: a diverse movement of people of faith, workers, students, and community groups urged McDonalds to the table last April, prompting even further-reaching accords. Yum Brands (parent company of Pizza Hut, Long John Silvers, KFC & Taco Bell) signed up all their companies shortly thereafter.

Thrillingly perched at the threshold of a more modern, more humane agricultural industry, the CIW looked to Florida-based neighbor Burger King.

But rather than partner with the CIW, whom FBI Director Robert Mueller mailed a letter of appreciation for their crucial role in the prosecution of multiple slavery cases, Burger King opted to instead join with the leaders of the industry that has generated federal convictions for forced labor, time and time again.

The Florida Tomato Growers Exchange — representing 90% of the state’s tomato growers — has temporarily halted the groundbreaking penny-per-pound wage increase by threatening fines of $100,000 per offense, for any grower that participates, according to an Associated Press exposé.


Until recently, corporate rule has enjoyed unilateral communication about how they run things, with billions spent on advertising to shape how we think of their products and agenda. While people have protested governments for several centuries now, having learned to manifest outrage in a way that impacts destructive state policies, we stand in the incipient stages of discovering how to employ our collective voice in requiring the same accountability of today’s for-profit sovereigns.

The CIW recently launched a major petition drive to end modern-day slavery and sweatshops in Florida´s fields. While petitions may appear on the surface as a yawn-inducing riposte to injustice, the CIW’s campaign echoes a key strategy employed by abolitionist forebears in England who used signature gathering to smash the slave trade there two centuries back.

Just as Burger King — among other fast food and grocery corporations — extracts extraordinary profit from the status quo of horrific labor conditions in Florida agriculture, British Parliament in the 1700s refused to end the slave trade due to the benefits they reaped from the plantation system: tremendous wealth from exploited labor.

It was a petition campaign, exposing the overwhelmingly popular rejection of the cruelty of slavery, that compelled British decision makers to end it — an unauthorized people’s referendum.

The British abolitionists, in their petition demanding an end to the slave trade, obtained signatures from more people than were actually eligible to vote for Parliament. Similarly, millions of people in the United States — including those convicted of felonies, those under the age of 18, and those who are not citizens — cannot lawfully vote for political office, but they can and do purchase hamburgers.

While the state may not recognize the voices of these millions of people in their elections, conversely, fast food chains cannot afford to ignore them. Accordingly, the CIW´s petition campaign not only reflects a radically democratic means of incorporating all those who wish to make their voices count, it is also incredibly powerful because Burger King´s constituents are, in fact, their would-be consumers.

The CIW petition demands that Burger King and other industry leaders:
* improve the wages and working conditions of the men and women who harvest their tomatoes, and
* support an industry-wide effort to end human rights violations and modern-day slavery in all of Florida’s fields.

Beyond a declaration of support for the demands, the petition serves as an official registry of individuals pledging to boycott when CIW gives the word, stating that those who sign are “prepared to stop patronizing Burger King now, and other food industry leaders in the future, should they fail to [heed the demands]…”

In the words of CIW member Leonel Perez, “Slavery is not a problem without a solution.” Indeed, two centuries after initial steps to abolish forced labor­ in US agriculture, it has become painfully obvious that passing more laws to further criminalize slavery will not end its practice — instead, we must develop an effective strategy to demolish the possibility that Burger King and others can continue profiting from the atrocious conditions that enable slavery to flourish.

Learn how to advance the CIW’s petition drive in your community.

Elias Lawless is a member of the Austin, Texas affiliate of the Student/Farmworker Alliance. This essay is written for the All Power to the Imagination! Conference on Radical Theory and Practice in Sarasota, Florida from April 4-6th, 2008. Read other articles by Elias, or visit Elias's website.