As a member of the Georgetown Solidarity Committee, I felt obligated to respond to the letter “Tomato Growers Ripe with Outrage” (THE HOYA, March 18, 2008, A2) from Reggie Brown on behalf of the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange. Not only does Brown misrepresent conditions in the tomato industry, but his declarations that growers are “socially accountable” lack substance. Perhaps most telling, he took time to promote the FTGE’s public relations platform in a student publication.

First, Brown claims “there have been no slavery cases that have directly involved commercial tomato growers” and denies the existence of modern-day slavery in the agriculture industry. Mr. Brown, wake up: In the past decade, there have been six federally prosecuted cases of slavery in Florida alone, involving over 1,000 workers. At least three operations involved tomato pickers, working on “commercial tomato growers” farms, including the most current case in which workers were locked inside trucks and beaten if they tried to escape. If the monitoring mechanisms that Brown praised do indeed work, these cases would not keep surfacing. Yet rather than acknowledge slavery cases, he continues to spend his time and efforts on empty public relations, like the high-profile publicity junket to Immokalee in November where he declared, “This is certainly not a labor force held in servitude.” On that occasion, Brown dragged his very own monitor, Andre Raghu, global managing director with the third-part auditor Intertek, along to parrot the same line. Mr. Raghu dutifully told the Miami Herald that their audits have found no “slave labor.”

The very same day of that visit, three workers who had forced their way out of a locked U-Haul truck two days before, just blocks away from where Mr. Brown declared Immokalee slavery-free, made their way to the police to initiate the very latest slavery prosecution. Perhaps Mr. Brown appreciates the cruel irony of his own statements.

r. Brown, denial and public relations efforts do not absolve growers’ responsibility of abuses in their fields. As Federal Court Judge K. Michael Moore, the presiding judge in United States vs. Ramos, said during the sentencing, he was frustrated that the current law only allowed the court to hold the crew leaders accountable for the brutal labor conditions in that case. As he said, “Others at a higher level of the fruit-picking industry seem complicit in one way or another with how these activities occur. . I think there is a broader interest out there that the government should look at as well …” Indeed, cases of slavery are the most extreme manifestations of the bottom-line mentality of the agricultural industry, where sub-poverty wages and abuses are the prevailing norm, and convictions do not address the root of slavery cases.

Second, Brown neglects to mention that growers play a major role in controlling the “third-party” monitoring body Socially Accountable Farm Employers; in fact, he himself sits on the board. SAFE’s founding organizations include the Florida Fruit and Vegetables Association, the primary lobbying body for Florida growers and the Redlands Christian Migrant Association, which has received donations from the FFVA and recently, $25,000 from Burger King. Essentially, SAFE is a program of grower-controlled bodies monitoring growers – a classic example of the fox guarding the henhouse. It might explain a bit about why they felt the need to employ a public relations firm that lists “activist response management” as one of its areas of experience.

Third, the claim that farm workers earn $12.46 (more than twice federal minimum wage) is absurd. Farm workers are paid a piece rate rather than hourly wages. That rate, an average of 45 cents per bucket of tomatoes they pick, has not significantly changed in over two decades. Moreover, reports of hourly wages underestimate the actual number of hours worked, and leave out waiting time. A 2006 report from the Department of Labor cites farm workers’ yearly earnings at $10,000-$12,000 a year, less than half of what Brown cites.

oreover, the FTGE has threatened $100,000 fines for any grower that passes down the penny-per-pound increase that Yum Brands and McDonald’s have already agreed to pay. It’s disgraceful that the FTGE, who appears to be in cahoots with Burger King, has aggressively chosen to impede change in the agricultural industry, when it would cost growers nothing. Fast food companies’ demands for bulk produce at low prices pressure growers to cut costs, driving down farm worker wages. For this reason, targeting fast food companies is effective and addresses the source of low wages, hence why we “misguided activists” protest against restaurants. Applying consumer pressure to companies has proven itself to be the most time-tested and effective way to compel the food industry to change.

r. Brown, in obstinately defending the FTGE and imposing the $100,000 fine, you stand complicit – along with Burger King – in creating labor conditions in which cases of modern-day slavery thrive. Today, as we stand at the bicentennial of the United States banning the importation of slaves, the Coalition for Immokalee Workers and allies are collecting petition signatures from around the country, borrowing a tactic from the British abolitionist movement that catalyzed a legal end to slavery – continuing to build a centuries-old movement. Will the FTGE continue its denial and cling to vestiges of slavery in 2008? Or will they support the movement to put an end to sweatshop conditions and modern-day slavery in the fields? Mr. Brown, if you are indeed committed to “improve the lives of all farmworkers and their families,” take a step toward justice and work with the CIW. I invite you – along with readers – to sign the CIW’s petition available at http://www.ciw-online.org/2008_Petitions/index.html.

Ashwini Jaisingh is a senior in the College and the member of the Georgetown Solidarity Committee.

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