(photos by Fritz Myer)

Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee
April 15, 2008

click here for a full media round-up from the hearing

The historic hearing in the US Senate — the first ever specifically called to look into labor conditions in Florida’s fields, the nation’s largest producer of fresh tomatoes and, for many years, of shameful headlines of farmworker slavery and exploitation — was called to order at 10:00 am Tuesday morning by the Chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions, Senator Edward Kennedy (middle).

But before the formalities began, there was an opportunity for some personal exchanges between the senators and the day’s witnesses, including this warm moment between Senator Kennedy and Lucas Benitez of the CIW. During his opening remarks, Sen. Kennedy graciously mentioned that Lucas was a 2003 laureate of the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award.

Then it was on to the hearing. The senators gathered for the start of the hearing — Sen. Bernie Sanders (left), Sen. Kennedy, Sen. Richard Durbin, and Sen. Sherrod Brown — opened the day’s proceedings with blistering denunciations of the conditions reported in Florida’s fields. Sen. Sanders, who visited Immokalee in January, told the hearing, “In America today we are seeing a race to the bottom, the middle class is collapsing, poverty is increasing. What I saw in Immokalee is the bottom in the race to the bottom.

The senators also shared their contempt for the efforts of the state’s largest tomato industry lobby, the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange, to whitewash the exploitation of the industry’s workers with exaggerated figures for average tomato harvesters’ wages and denials of responsibility for the many federally prosecuted cases of slavery to emerge from the fields in recent years. Here, Senator Durbin asked those gathered to, “do the math with me.” He went on to explain that workers would have to fill and empty a 32-pound bucket of tomatoes, each worth about 45 cents, about every two minutes all day long to earn the $12.50. “Is that possible? I don’t think it is,” he said.

With the opening remarks concluded, the day’s six witnesses began their testimony, with 5-10 minutes of prepared remarks followed by questions and answers from the committee members. The witnesses included, from top left to bottom right, Lucas Benitez of the CIW, Detective Charlie Frost of the Collier County Sheriff’s Department Anti-Trafficking Unit, author Eric Schlosser, attorney Mary Bauer of the Southern Poverty Law Center, Reggie Brown of the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange, and Roy Reyna of Grainger Farms.

Lucas was the day’s first witness. After thanking the committee members for calling the hearing, Lucas began his testimony by noting:

Exactly 200 years ago, in an act now mostly forgotten in the pages of history, the Congress of the United States voted to end the importation of slaves into this country.

200 years ago, the opponents of that law argued that the slaves were happy with their lot, that they were certainly better off than where they came from, and that agriculture in this country would surely collapse if this law were to pass. 

200 years ago, the choice before Congress seemed complicated and controversial.  But in the end, the people’s representatives voted in favor of human rights and so advanced the cause of human dignity.

Today, 200 years later, I sit before you representing the Campaign for Fair Food – a campaign  with the objective of eliminating modern-day slavery and sweatshop conditions in the fields of Florida…

Lucas went on to describe conditions in the fields from his own experience. And in a particularly powerful moment, he cut through all the fog surrounding the FTGE’s $12.50 per hour figure by declaring:

Fine. We’ll take it. If Mr. Brown can guarantee $12.46 an hour, backed up by a verifiable system of hours with time clocks in the fields, and thereby eliminate the antiquated system of work by the piece, we’ll take it.  If they say they pay already $12.46 an hour, then there should be no problem with really paying it.

It should be noted for the record that Mr. Brown never answered the offer. Lucas closed his testimony with a message of hope, saying:

A new dawn for social responsibility in the agricultural industry is on its way. With the help of Congress, and with the faith that the complicated will be made clear under the purifying light of human rights —  today, just as it was 200 years ago – we will witness the dawn of that new day.

See a full transcript of Lucas’s prepared remarks by clicking here.

Detective Charlie Frost of the Collier County (Florida) Sheriff’s Department’s Anti-Trafficking Unit followed. Detective Frost left no room for doubt that slavery in was a real and ongoing danger facing workers in Florida’s tomato fields. He also made clear that he felt the current law used in slavery prosecutions should be strengthened to extend criminal liability to the companies where workers are found to be held in slavery by labor contractors, saying:

One common denominator identified by Florida State University’s Center for the Advancement of Human Rights (CAHR) research and in my investigations is in almost all cases of labor trafficking in Florida, the traffickers are subcontractors to larger businesses.  This system also allows the larger corporation to remain willfully blind of any abuses occurring and minimize any liability.  In turn, both the trafficker and the business profit from the work of the enslaved victim.  Currently, actual knowledge is the standard of proof required to find a business culpable of human trafficking offenses.  Short of a change to state and federal law both corporations and traffickers will be able to continue to profit from this system.

He concluded with a message for those who would deny the existence of slavery in Florida’s fields:

Knowing that this is occurring not just in the State of Florida but across the Nation, it is egregious that any entity should deny the existence of human trafficking.  This arrogance, willful blindness, and lack of social responsibility offends our basic rights guaranteed by our nation’s constitution.

See a full transcript of Det. Frost’s testimony, and of all the witnesses’ written submissions, by clicking here.

Next to speak was Eric Schlosser, author of the best-seller Fast Food Nation and a long-time observer of farm labor conditions from California to Florida. He began his testimony by saying, “What is happening right now in the tomato fields of Florida is so bad that it almost defies description, let alone belief.” 

He went on to remind the senators that growers and their fast-food clients not only profit from farmworker exploitation but have actively sought to deny its existence:

I think most Americans would agree that the practice of slavery in the United States is unacceptable.  But that sense of outrage does not seem to extend to the tomato growers of Florida and some of their fast food customers.  During the same week that three tomato pickers climbed through the ventilation hatch of the box truck where they were being held against their will and escaped to freedom, setting in motion the Justice Department’s latest slavery case–during that very same week, representatives of the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange and the Burger King Corporation staged a press junket in nearby fields, introducing reporters to happy farmworkers with “no complaints” and strongly denying that involuntary servitude or slavery was a problem.  Perhaps the growers and some of their fast food customers are sincerely unaware that tomato pickers are being exploited.  But such earnest pleas of ignorance bring to mind the scene in the film Casablanca when a French policeman, Captain Renault, is “shocked, shocked” to find out that gambling is occurring–at the casino where he regularly gambles.

Mr. Schlosser’s testimony provided valuable historical context for today’s slavery epidemic in Florida’s fields, informing the hearing that “well into the 1940’s” Florida’s vagrancy laws, “allowed sheriffs to arrest young African-American men, fine them, and force them to pay off the fine by working for local citrus and tomato growers.” He also reminded the senators of a famous quote in the seminal documentary on exploitation of Florida’s farmworkers, “The Harvest of Shame,” where, “a Florida farmer describes his workforce in terms that remain unfortunately relevant today: ‘We used to own our slaves — now we just rent them.’”  

Mr. Schlosser added his own challenge the FTGE’s Brown, asking:

Mr. Brown, if your farmers are doing such a good job of taking care of your workers, why have none of the seven major slavery cases in Florida been uncovered by one of your farmers or one of their managers?

Again, for the record, Mr. Brown did not answer Mr. Schlosser’s question.

Mary Bauer, an attorney with the renowned Southern Poverty Law Center, put the final nails in the coffin of the FTGE’s arguments against charges of rampant farmworker exploitation. She began her testimony stating plainly: “Immokalee tomato workers are desperately poor, fearful of retaliation, lack benefits most workers take for granted, and denied access to basic legal protections.

She went on to describe conditions in Immokalee, including:

  • Workers suffer recurring problems with unpaid “waiting time” and other violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act.  Workers routinely report that they show up for work and are required to wait, often for hours, until the dew dries and the tomatoes can be picked.  Similarly, when it rains, workers are routinely required to wait, and are not paid for that time.  As one worker told me:  “We are paid only when we pick; we are paid only for the buckets we produce”…


  • “Workers suffer long periods of unemployment and are forced to migrate to obtain other low-paying, short-term jobs.  When they do not work—for a day, or a week, or a month—they receive no pay.  For low-income families, this is devastating”…


  • Workers report that government enforcement, particularly as to wage and hour violations, has no practical effect on their own employment situation.  Most workers told us that they would not consider calling the Department of Labor under any circumstances.  None report having seen or spoken with any government enforcement agents

Calling farmworker exploitation, “one of the major civil rights issues of our time,” Ms. Bauer concluded:

… (F)or every [slavery] case we hear about, there are hundreds of other cases with similar kinds of power relationships… less dramatic but still incredibly oppressive circumstances that in effect amount to forced labor that are extremely common, and in fact close to the norm in many industries…. I do not believe that the American people would be comfortable if they knew how their food is being produced. They would not want to eat food that had been produced in this way.

Which brings us to Mr. Brown…

He began his testimony inauspiciously — at least, that is, for anyone in the audience hoping for an eleventh hour conversion — declaring: “We are here before this Committee because the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), a purported Florida labor organization, has leveled accusations at Florida’s tomato growers on a number of fronts.

And it went down hill from there…

We will defer to The Nation to summarize Mr. Brown’s arguments on this day. From the article “Ending Slavery for Pennies”:

“Indeed, it’s not too much of a stretch to view Brown and his cohorts as 21st century George Wallaces or Bull Connors, standing in the way of the progress of human rights in our own nation. Brown boasted of the workers who continue to return to the fields; of the “entry level job” tomato picking represents on the way towards achieving the American dream; of the “shock” that FTGE felt in response to the slavery cases – cases Schlosser pointed out were never uncovered by the growers who work with the labor contractors, but by CIW – in the relatively small town of Immokalee; and, time and again, Brown pointed to Socially Accountable Farm Employers (SAFE) – “an independent third party” that is auditing growers to make sure workers are treated with respect and paid fair wages. But Sanders revealed that two of the five members of the SAFE Board of Directors are Brown himself and Mike Stuart, President of the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association (FFVA). FFVA lists helping growers meet their labor needs while keeping costs down as one of its key responsibilities. Further, neither Brown nor Stuart reveal their positions in the industry on the SAFE website.”



Following the witnesses’ prepared remarks, the question and answer session consisted primarily of a series of withering questions from Sen. Sanders directed at the tomato industry’s Mr. Brown. Here’s an example of one exchange, again from the Nation article:

“As some growers began to implement the Yum/McDonald’s agreement – an extra paycheck cut to the farmworkers by the buyers, not the growers, mind you – the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange (FTGE), representing 90 percent of the state’s growers, said any members who adopted this policy would be fined $100,000 per worker benefiting from the agreement.

Reginald Brown, Executive Vice President of the FTGE, was at the hearing trying, desperately, to justify opposition to the agreement as stemming from legal concerns.

Sen. Sanders entered into the record a letter from 26 legal professors specializing in labor law, including antitrust dimensions of labor standards, writing that “the ostensible legal concerns of the Growers Exchange are utterly without merit.” (In fact, the experts concluded, the only real antitrust issue might be several growers agreeing amongst themselves to reject the deal.) He noted that McDonald’s and Yum! Brands also entered letters into the record stating that there are no legal problems with the extra penny deal and that they want it implemented.

“I gather that McDonald’s and Yum have some money to hire some pretty good attorneys,” Sen. Sanders told Brown. “You might want to reconsider the attorneys you are using and rethink this issue.”

It was not a good day to be a tomato industry lobbyist…

Here’s how a story in the Miami Herald on the hearings summed up the day:

“WASHINGTON — Delivering a victory to farmworker groups that complain of paltry wages on Florida farms, senators said Tuesday they’ll ask federal investigators to determine whether migrant farm workers are being paid as much as the tomato industry claims.

The call to have the Government Accountability Office investigate came as Sens. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., and Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, pledged to back efforts to boost pay and improve working conditions for thousands of migrant workers picking tomatoes in Immokalee and throughout Florida.

”This is the beginning, this is not the end,” said Sanders, who toured the Collier County farming community in January and said he found the living conditions for workers ”deplorable.” He said the committee was likely to push for greater protection of farmworkers, including changes to federal trafficking statutes.

Sanders also questioned the tomato industry’s contention that tomato pickers make an average of $12.50 per hour. Most farms guarantee workers at least a minimum wage of $6.79, but pay them based on the number of buckets picked. For every 32-pound bucket, the worker gets a token typically worth 45 to 50 cents.

”We have broken ground on this issue,” Sanders said. “We are going to stay on this issue.”

And so, stay tuned, as there will surely be more to come on the fast-developing Congressional front in the Campaign for Fair Food!