“Ground zero for modern slavery”: The Plight of the Florida Tomato Workers

Attorneys representing employers have described wage-and-hour claims as an “epidemic.”

But in fact, outrageous work conditions persist. Actual forced labor—slavery, in other words—continues to exist in this country today, in the tomato fields of Immokalee, Florida.

This 2009 blog post from Gourmet magazine (which followed up on this article from the magazine proper) provides a good primer on the situation:

A little slavery is okay, just not too much of it.

At this writing, that appears to be the official government position in the state of Florida, and it could explain why the fields of the Sunshine State provide such fertile ground for modern-day slavery. In the past dozen years, police have broken up and prosecuted seven slave operations there, freeing more than 1,000 men and women who were kept captive and forced to work for little or no money and threatened with death if they tried to escape.

Sadly little has changed in the last three years. This post last week on the blog of Philadelphia magazine highlights current efforts to raise awareness: since 1993, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) has endeavored to improve their own working conditions.

The tomatoes they harvest are sold to fast food chains and groceries all over America. The CIW has successfully called enough attention to their exploitation that their employers have finally agreed to extremely basic accommodations, like “shade tents for breaks.”

The CIW’s achievements are all the more impressive given the anemic state of labor organizing in America—not to mention the exceptional logistical challenges created by the Immokalee work itself. From a 2003 New Yorker article worth reading in its entirety:

Workers are reluctant to discuss abusive situations with employers, much less with bolillos, or white Americans, for fear of losing their jobs and being labelled troublemakers. Those workers without papers live under the constant threat of being seized by la migra–the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Some labor contractors use this implicit threat of exposure to keep them in line. Workers often borrow money to travel north from loan sharks back home at interest rates as high as twenty-five per cent per month. If they are deported, the loan is foreclosed. Frequently, homes are put up as collateral, so deportation can be a financial calamity for an entire family. All these factors combine to create, in South Florida, what a Justice Department official calls “ground zero for modern slavery.”

While some concessions have been won since that article was written, the conditions in Immokalee remain entirely deplorable. The Harman Firm finds this horrific mistreatment of workers repugnant.

However, once liberated from the shackles of modern-day slavery, workers are still entitled to fair wages, including minimum wage and overtime, whether they are undocumented or a legal citizen. The Harman Firm is committed to combating wage theft in New York and beyond, and has in fact recently been pursuing widespread wage theft in the Miami/Dade region.

If you have any questions about our work, employment law, or your own work circumstances, do not hesitate to contact us.