Slavery has been abolished in the United States since 1863, so how is it that tomato pickers in Immokalee, Florida, still had to experience this tragedy first hand? Immokalee is a town in South Florida known for its production of tomatoes which makes up 90 percent of America’s winter supply. Unfortunately, behind the scenes of what appears to be average tomato farms are actually millions of pickers being abused, held against their will and forced into slavery.
According to the Huffington Post, in 2008 the workers received no regular standard of pay even though they worked every day of the week for almost 12 hours a day. Poor housing conditions were the norm, with more than 10 people in decrepit, cramped and unpleasant living spaces. Migrants that work on these farms were sometimes held in the back of U-Haul trucks and chained to the sides of the walls. For the entire night, these workers were forced to sleep and use the bathroom in the exact same spot, where they had no windows or sources of fresh air.
Pickers were also forced to work under incredibly harsh conditions. According to CNN, they worked all day in the blazing Florida sun without any means of shade or water. In addition to this, guards played a large role in their everyday lives. These guards were armed in order to subdue tomato pickers and keep them in a state of fear. Women were frequently sexually assaulted, and if anyone tried to escape, they would be beaten in front of everyone as an example.
Despite the state of constant fear, the Immokalee citizens created The Coalition of Immokalee Workers in order to expose the many instances of slavery that still reside in Florida. Eventually, their mission shifted to focusing more on preventing such tragedies from occurring in the first place. They have prioritized educating the migrant farmers on their rights and the laws employers must abide by. In return, workers are less likely to be taken advantage of and more likely to report any violations to the coalition.
Thankfully, The Fair Food Program was also created to prevent slavery while further ensuring the fair treatment of workers. The program works with companies like Publix and Subway to establish a direct relationship between tomato farmers and negotiate better wages for the pickers.
Most importantly, this fight against slavery has also been taken to the court system of the United States where countless cases have been brought up against farm owners and their blatant use of slave labor. In 2008, six people in Immokalee were indicted for their involvement in slavery on the farm. Another Immokalee family was sentenced to 12 years in prison for enslaving tomato pickers and forcing them to work. Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders brought the fight against slavery to Congress and has called attention to the continuing existence of slavery within the United States. Sanders challenges Congress to acknowledge the corrupt practices and hold these slave owners accountable for their actions. Unfortunately, slavery still exists in many parts of the United States, but hopefully, by calling attention to the problem and actively prosecuting against it, we can end slavery once and for all.