$3.5 million judgment closes books on yet another forced labor case in Florida’s fields…

The Ft. Myers, Florida, courthouse pictured here, where the judgment was handed down earlier this month, stands less than an hour’s drive from the fields where workers were threatened with guns and sexually assaulted by their field boss.

Newest case marks ninth forced labor operation brought to justice by CIW’s Anti-Slavery Program since 1997, demonstrates enduring perils of fields beyond the reach of the Fair Food Program…

On February 10, a Federal District Court Judge in Ft. Myers, Florida, ordered Reyes Tapia-Ortiz, a crewleader for Clewiston, FL-based C&C Farms, to pay $3.5 million dollars in damages to five farmworkers from Mexico and Guatemala.  Last year, the court found that Tapia-Ortiz had, “engaged in forced labor and related offenses by brandishing a gun, threatening to harm and deport workers for complaining about conditions and not being paid for all their work at legal wages, sexually harassing a female worker, and falsely imprisoning then facilitating the deportation of a worker who stopped working for him,” according to Susan French of the George Washington University Law School International Human Rights Clinic, a lead attorney for the plaintiffs on the case.

Here below is an excerpt from the court record — quoting another plaintiff’s attorney, Bob Wright of Stroock & Stroock & Lavan — that gives a clear picture of the conditions in the fields under Tapia:

Your Honor, I think a normal human being would say how in the world did Tapia get away with this in the 21st century here in Florida?  Well, a real easy answer, fear and intimidation.  

He kept a rifle and a pistol with him in the field to intimidate the plaintiffs and other workers, and he threatened them with his guns and also deportation when they complained to him. . . Additionally, Ms. Perez will testify that she was serially harassed, sexually harassed, groped by Mr. Tapia-Ortiz on many occasions while she worked in isolation in the fields, as well as harassed by telephone calls he made to her.  She rejected all his advances, threatened to call the police, and Mr. Tapia’s response, well, the police wouldn’t help her and she would be deported if she called the police.  

He cornered her in a secluded location in the fields in the fall of 2011, and when Ms. Perez resisted his advances, he lifted his shirt to display a pistol tucked into his waistband.  He also threatened to track down Ms. Perez and kill her if she ever left his crew…

According to Ms. French, Tapia even “threatened to burn one worker alive in her trailer if she reported his unlawful conduct.”  

“They worked in stifling hot fields, no shelter from the sun”…

The investigation — launched in 2010 when a worker brought a complaint to the CIW in Immokalee about conditions on C&C Farms (a non-Fair Food Program company located about 30 miles outside of Immokalee) — marks the ninth forced labor operation brought to justice by the CIW’s Anti-Slavery Program.  

An editorial cartoon published in the Naples Daily News in 1997 after the first successful prosecution, US V. Flores, of a modern-day slavery operation brought to the attention of federal prosecutors by the CIW.

After the initial report, the investigation stalled until a new call came in through the nascent Fair Food Program hotline in 2012.  Two women who had worked at C&C Farms — and who had learned about their rights at a worker-to-worker education session on an FFP-participating farm — called to report the abuses they had encountered at C&C.  The conditions they described, now memorialized in the court record, recall the kind and degree of farm labor exploitation typical of far too many farms in Florida before the launch of the Fair Food Program in 2011.:

… They worked in stifling hot fields, no shelter from the sun, no breaks except a brief time to eat, limited water, no nearby toilets.  During high harvest season, they worked 7 days a week for 10 to 12 hours in the sun…  [followed by] 3 to 8 more hours per day of work at the packinghouse… They were often forced to work double shifts in order to be paid by Mr. Tapia Ortiz, he told them if they did not work the night shift they would not be paid for the day shift…  Plaintiffs were forced while they were working in the packing house to go outside at night to go to the bathroom… 

On average female plaintiffs were paid about $35 a day, and the male plaintiffs got about $45 a day, well below the Florida minimum wage…  They were also exposed to pesticides in the field…  headaches, burning eyes, skin rashes, nausea.  

For that matter, the workers’ testimony in the Tapia case echoes the current conditions in the produce fields of Mexico described in the LA Times’ shocking 2014 exposé (the very same fields, in fact, that an even more recent Harper’s Magazine article connected directly to the fast food chain, Wendy’s).

Seven years to justice…

The conditions these workers endured were typical of Florida fields before the Fair Food Program.  Unfortunately, so too was the justice that they eventually secured: slow (seven years from first report to final judgment), frustrating (many workers originally involved in the case long since moved on before its resolution), and ultimately largely symbolic (most of the $3.5 million judgment, while an excellent precedent, will almost certainly never be collected).  

Despite the valiant efforts of the team of pro bono lawyers who pursued the suit tirelessly through the legal system to its successful end, the Tapia case — like 2015’s historic EEOC judgment against Moreno Farms before it — provides a telling counterpoint to the swift and decisive justice of the Fair Food Program.  The FFP’s unique success was cited in a report, released this past December, by the Special Representative and Coordinator for Combating Trafficking in Human Beings with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE):

The SR recognizes the good practice of the work of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) and their Fair Food Program, which contributed significantly to the eradication of trafficking and slavery in tomato production in Florida. The Program is a unique partnership among farmers, farmworkers and retail food companies that ensures humane wages and working conditions for the workers who pick fruits and vegetables on participating farms. It harnesses the power of consumer demand to give farmworkers a voice in the decisions that affect their lives, and to eliminate abuses in the agricultural sector.

Indeed, the Tapia case — while providing long-overdue closure for the workers who bravely persevered through years of investigation and court procedures — is an important reminder of why consumer demand for farm labor justice, and the Campaign for Fair Food, remain so vital today.  While it would be reasonable to assume that, given the program’s unparalleled success, any retail food company that professes even a perfunctory commitment to social responsibility would be beating down the CIW’s doors to join the FFP, in fact the Campaign remains the primary vehicle for bringing new food corporations into the Fair Food fold.  

Which brings us back, of course, to the final fast food hold-out, Wendy’s and next month’s huge Return to Human Rights Tour…  Check back later this week for some very, very big news from the Wendy’s Boycott front!

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