Jose Hilario, a 48-year-old native of Guerrero, Mexico, came to the United States hoping to find work in the tomato fields that surround the town of Immokalee in southwestern Florida. He wanted to send money home for his sister’s children’s schooling. Instead, he found himself enslaved—literally.
For two years he was forced to toil for a “crew boss” named Cesar Navarrete, who, with help from five members of his family, forced a dozen men to work with little or no pay. Hilario and his fellow crew members were shackled in chains and spent nights locked inside box trucks, where they were forced to relieve themselves in corners. If they felt too sick or tired to work, they were beaten. They received two meager meals a day—often only plain tortillas. One worker who managed to flee a field was chased down and brought back, his face too swollen and bloody to recognize. “This will happen to you if you try to leave,” Navarrete told Hilario.
In November 2007, Hilario and four other members of the enslaved crew escaped. With the help of a grassroots workers organization called the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), they contacted police. Navarrete pleaded guilty and received a 12-year prison term. Hilario went back to the fields, still chasing the dream of sending a bit of money home to his family.
On Sunday, Feb. 27, Hilario plans to be among the field workers, religious leaders, students and activists attending a rally in Boston’s Copley Square followed by a march to a Stop and Shop supermarket in Brigham Circle. They want Ahold, the multinational company that owns Stop and Shop, to pay tomato pickers one penny more per pound, the difference between making $50 and $70 a day. Slicing tomatoes at one Boston Stop and Shop were on sale for $1.99 a pound, a penny more does not seem like a burden to consumers. “People who pick the tomatoes you eat deserve to be treated with dignity,” Hilario told me when I interviewed him.
The slavery that Hilario experienced is but one step on a grim continuum of labor abuses suffered by the men and women who pick those red, perfectly spherical winter tomatoes that shine so alluringly from our supermarket produce displays. A laborer makes the same amount for a 32-pound bucket today as he did 30 years ago. Workers receive no benefits of any kind, have no sick leave and are not paid extra for overtime. Most earn less than $12,000 a year.
Last November, after nearly two decades of effort, the CIW and the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange, a cooperative whose members grow the vast majority of Florida tomatoes, agreed to abide with the CIW’s “Fair Food” principles. They include a strict code of conduct, a complaint resolution system, a health and safety program, and an educational process. The principles make it far more difficult for unscrupulous crew bosses like the Navarretes to operate.
Importantly, the growers agreed to pass a penny-per-pound increase along to workers if their customers would offer it. Large restaurant franchises such as McDonalds, Burger King, and Yum! Brands (which owns Taco Bell) came aboard, as did Bon Appetit Management, Compass, Aramark and other industrial food-service companies. But with the notable exception of Whole Foods Market, not a single supermarket chain has offered to participate. As one member of the coalition told me, “We have built a conduit for a fair wage, but the supermarkets have to fill it.”
Stop and Shop’s website says the company will “not do business with suppliers who cannot fulfill their ethical and/or sustainability duties.” I am reminded of a tomato picker who asked me, “How sustainable is it when the person who picks your food cannot feed his own family?”
In October, I spoke with Tom Beddard, owner of Lady Moon Farms, one of the first Florida growers to agree to the Fair Food principles. “I mean, come on, we’re talking about a penny a pound,” he said. “What’s a penny a pound to me? To these big growers? Nothing. A joke.”
It means even less to a $40-billion corporation like Ahold. But when a penny makes the difference between abject poverty and a livable, if paltry wage, it is no joke.