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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Injustice in our salads

Published: October 24, 2014
Section: Opinions

If you are under the impression that slavery is solely a scar of America’s past, you have been greatly misinformed. Slavery exists in the United States today, and it helped make your salad.

Immokalee, FL, is referred to as America’s tomato capital. Yet that is not all it is known for. For decades, it has served as a Garden of Eden for injustice, cruelty and the abuse of migrant workers. Subjected to long hours of labor and horrid working conditions, these farm workers exist as disposable tools in a system where they are made to be invisible to the eye of the consumer. Workers are verbally and physically abused by their employers and made to work hour after hour in the sweltering heat.

They are housed in dirty, cramped spaces where they are constantly watched over—essentially held captive. Their wages are insignificant and their debt rampant—one of the many ways that their employers keep their hold on them. Their stories are haunting. From narratives of sexual abuse and forced labor to descriptions of the wretched conditions in which they live, this modern-day slavery is very real—the pain and injustice as raw as a fresh tomato.

As Ronald Takaki explores in his book “A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America,” time and time again, immigrants have been subjected to exploitation in the workforce. Hopeful for what America would bring, these immigrants believe this country to be the answer to their prayers—a land of riches, opportunity and justice. They were beckoned by the ever-elusive American Dream. As Japanese immigrants experienced when they came to the U.S. in the late 19th century and early 20th century, life in America did not turn out as expected. These laborers fell victim to cruelty, working hours on end for very little pay. Though this may have happened decades ago, this sad pattern has persisted throughout time. If this treatment is what the American Dream entails, then I think it is time to wake up.

Luckily, steps have been taken and improvements have been made over the past few years. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) is a group that serves to educate the public on the issue of the exploitation of farm workers. CIW has worked to establish Fair Food Agreements with several large companies such as Walmart, Sodexo, Chipotle, McDonald’s and Whole Foods. The agreements are part of CIW’s Fair Food Program (FFP) which, according to CIW, serves as a “model for social responsibility based on a unique partnership among farm workers, Florida tomato growers and participating buyers.”

This program entails a code of conduct that farms are held to. Companies involved in the FFP pledge to only buy from farms that uphold the expectations of FFP and to cease business partnership with farms that do not comply with their standards. Elements of the code of conduct include zero tolerance for sexual assault and forced labor, health and safety committees on each farm and auditing of the farms in order to ensure their proper participation in FFP. Since implementing these standards, work conditions have improved drastically across farms, with reports of harassment decreasing over the past few years, but steps must continue to be made in order to ensure the constant protection of these workers.

There needs to be physical representation that the consumer is purchasing from an ethical company. If the consumer can actually see the morality of their purchase, they may be less likely to buy from unethical sources. Tomatoes coming from FFP-approved farms should be marked with a sticker indicating so. At the very least, this representation will spark the consumer to recognize that not all produce are created equal.

However, if companies are not truly following the FFP commitment, this sticker will do no good. As a concerned individual, I want to know what steps will be taken if standards regress. Who will speak up? The big companies and corporations? The abused worker? I think not. Luckily FFP exists to help prevent such things from happening. However, if the companies break their promises to only buy from ethical farms, how long will it take before this information goes public? How many more immigrants will be abused in the process? The burden of injustice outweighs the nutritional benefits of my salad.

We must not think that just because conditions have improved, this injustice has disappeared altogether. In combating injustice, there is no underestimating the power of one’s voice. The burden of responsibility must fall to the consumer. How do you know if you are unintentionally contributing to this system of modern-day slavery? Do your research, think about where you buy your produce. But more importantly, I challenge you to put yourselves in the position of these immigrants. Think about what it must be like to live life as one of these workers, one of these parents, siblings, children—one of these humans.

Whether tomatoes are a staple in your household or not, the abusive treatment of immigrants is a human rights issue. It is not about politics. It is about standing up for your fellow human beings. The consumer is a vital pillar of protection for these immigrants. I am not suggesting that everyone stops eating tomatoes altogether. But until a food revolution is served, human rights will continue to be at risk. This revolution starts in your kitchen.