Victory Against Modern Day Slavery in the Florida Fields

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It’s 140 years since the Emancipation Proclamation, but slavery is alive and well in America’s South. Florida farmworkers are fighting back.

On June 26, 2002, after two long years of an investigation by a local labor organisation, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW),  three Central Florida employers who ran a violent and coercive slavery operation in the citrus fruit industry were found guilty by a jury in federal court of charges including:  conspiracy to hold workers in indentured servitude, interference with interstate commerce through extortion, and use of a firearm during a crime of violence.  The employers, Ramiro, Juan,  and Jose Luis Ramos face up to 25 years in jail and forfeiture of up to $3 million in assets.

In the past five years, the CIW has uncovered and investigated three large slavery operations in tomato fields and citrus groves, and acted as a key consultant to the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division in two other slavery prosecutions.  In this most recent case, CIW members gathered crucial intelligence while working undercover, investigated the employers' multiple business interests in the area, and helped liberate several workers. 

According to workers, their employers held them in debt on labor camps in Lake Placid, telling them they owed $1,000 each for their ride from Arizona to Florida.   The Ramos deducted from workers' weekly pay for the ride fee, rent, food, work equipment, and so on, with workers ending up with as little as $70 a week in hand.  The workers were then taken to Ramos' family stores to spend what was left.   The employers used threats of beatings and death to create a climate of fear and keep workers against their will.  Visitors to the camp were threatened and blocked from leaving. 

When the CIW managed to visit one of the camps, workers told us that they were being held against their will and threatened.  We informed workers of their right to work where they choose in the US.  Shortly afterwards,  four workers called for help, and in a harrowing and tense ordeal CIW members assisted in getting them off the camp. 

Previously, the Ramoses had attacked the drivers of an Immokalee-based transport service which had stopped in Lake Placid to pick up farmworker passengers on their way north to other jobs. (Such van/bus services offer low-cost and convenient alternatives to Greyhound buses for workers who are too poor to own cars but need a means to get to other jobs once seasonal or temporary work is finished.)

The transport service drivers (some of whom are CIW members), reported that six or more armed gunmen pulled up in two pick-up trucks, accusing the drivers of "taking their people." The bosses held the drivers and worker passengers at gunpoint, threatened to kill them, beat some of them, smashed  the van windows, and viciously pistol-whipped the van service owner, leaving him unconscious and permanently disfigured. By attacking vans they closed down workers' only escape route, blocking the road out of slavery for captive workers desperate to flee. 

You, dear reader, may ask, how did Florida agribusiness and their clients, the transnational giant fast-food corporations and juice companies, react to the fifth agricultural slavery conviction in our great state in as many years?  Were they shocked, horrified, distressed and resolutely determined to redress the extreme imbalance of power between workers and employers by responding to CIW members' demands for dialogue and for modernizing the industry?  We regretfully inform you that up to this point, the response from those corporations has been:   a resounding silence. 

The CIW has called on the fast-food industry to take responsibility for sweatshop conditions in the fields.  Even farmworkers who aren't being held in slavery - the majority of the workforce – are working for what could be called slave wages.  To eradicate slavery and subpoverty wages we must focus on the underlying root causes of these abuses: antiquated labor relations that give rise to a whole range of abuses and, in the worst cases, allow debt bondage to flourish.  With the more equitable balance of power that will come from our overall movement for economic and human rights will also come the end of slavery.

The good news is that everyday people are demanding justice. Consumers have shown that they would prefer fair food to fast food, and this past June a jury of 12 ordinary citizens spoke out against injustice.  Now we have to ask, how many times can the agricultural industry turn its head and claim that it just doesn't see? When will the fast-food corporations recognize that they must ensure that the people who create so much of their mind-boggling wealth are paid a living wage and work in equitable conditions?

For more on this and previous slavery cases, visit the coalition of Immakolee Wokers’ website at http://www.ciw-online.org