At what cost to farm workers do we enjoy our fruits and vegetables? Are we willing to pay a little more at the checkout counter to better their lot? It’s a question that’s been on the national agenda for over half a century now, as Mark Strassmann reports in our Cover Story:
In 1960, CBS News broadcast “Harvest of Shame,” Edward R. Murrow’s groundbreaking documentary, which exposed the conditions on farms in rural Florida, North Carolina and New Jersey:
“They are the migrants, workers in the sweat shops of the soil.”
Millions of Americans saw, for the first time, third-world squalor in America.
As Murrow reported, “One farmer looked at this and said, ‘We used to own our slaves. Now we just rent them.'”
Americans were so horrified, Congress passed new labor laws. But little changed. America’s farms kept producing harvests of shame, as Dan Rather reported from Florida in 1995.
“These are still the forgotten people. Conditions for them are still awful,” he said.
There are still about a million migrant farm workers in the U.S. The population of towns like Immokalee, Fla., swells every winter when migrants and their families move here looking for work.
“There’s a lot of mistreatment going on,” said Gerardo Reyes. “A lot of intimidation from the bosses.”
Reyes, a native of Mexico, came to Immokalee to pick crops in 1999. Farms in Florida grow 90 percent of the tomatoes we eat in the winter.
Pickers move from farm to farm and crop to crop with the seasons. But according to Reyes, tomatoes were the worst. “Tomatoes is where most of the worst conditions are happening, or were happening,” he told Strassmann.
- “Harvest of Shame” 50 years later (“CBS Evening News,” 11/24/10)
- Illegal immigration crackdown impacts harvests (“CBS Evening News,” 07/01/11)
- Pictures chronicle poverty “in our own backyard” (“CBS Evening News,” 03/19/12)
- Farm labor: Children in the fields (“60 Minutes,” 05/22/11)
- GOP Congressman: “Let the prisoners pick the fruits” (03/31/06)
Labor activist Greg Asbed came to Immokolee in 1993. “When we were first here, it was a very brutal community,” he said. “There were wage thefts, sexual harassment, violence. I mean, you would come out here on Friday in the evening for payday. People would get their checks right outside the office. And it was not uncommon to see somebody get beaten up by a boss, and their crime would usually be because they thought they got underpaid.”
Asbed co-founded the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW). Its mission? Force fairness and workers rights onto Florida’s fields.
For seven years, the CIW tried marches and strikes. But tomato farmers refused to talk to them.
And then they changed tactics. “Yes, because you beat your head against the wall long enough and you decide that that hurts,” Asbed laughed. “And you want to find another way to get around the wall. And if there is a way to get around it, you do.”
In 2000, the CIW began pressuring the top of the tomato chain — fast food and grocery chains, the buyers with clout. In 2005, Taco Bell became the first big buyer to sign on to CIW’s Fair Food Program. Buyers agree to pay an extra penny per pound for tomatoes — money that goes to workers. And buyers only do business with participating Florida farmers.
More than a dozen restaurant chains and retailers have signed on, including McDonalds, Chipotle, Trader Joes, and last year Wal-Mart, which sells 20 percent of America’s tomatoes. Wal-Mart’s joining was featured in the 2014 documentary, “Food Chains.”
“We believe that by signing up to the Fair Foods Program, that we can have a major impact on the sustainability and the viability of the whole supply chain,” said Wal-Mart Senior VP Tom Leech.
Strassmann asked, “When Wal-Mart, known as a tough labor negotiator, signed on, did that give you a whole new level of credibility and influence?”
“It helped send the message to the industry that this program is not going away, that it’s only getting stronger,” said Asbed.
Florida tomato growers got that message. Ninety percent of Florida’s tomatoes are now grown on “fair food” farms.
Farmer Jon Esformes signed on first. “It was the right thing to do, quite frankly,” he said. “I was asked when we first signed, ‘Why are you doing this now?’ And I said, ‘Because I didn’t do it 10 years ago.'”
“How long ago should it have happened?” asked Strassmann.
“It should have happened 150 years ago.”
The Esformes family owns Pacific Tomato, which employs 1,500 people around Immokolee.
“There was no question in my mind that bad things were happening in agriculture and on farms, not just my own, but farms across the country — things that I did not know about and had no mechanism to find out about,” said Esformes. “This gave me the tool.”
That tool is the Fair Food Standards Council, an independent group that inspects participating farmers and holds them accountable.
Along with the penny premium, growers must have zero tolerance for forced labor, child labor, and sexual harassment. Other standards, such as mandated shade and mandatory worker training, go beyond what is legally required.