Slave labour that shames America

Migrant workers chained beaten and forced into debt, exposing the human cost of producing cheap food

Three Florida fruit-pickers, held captive and brutalised by their employer for more than a year, finally broke free of their bonds by punching their way through the ventilator hatch of the van in which they were imprisoned. Once outside, they dashed for freedom.

When they found sanctuary one recent Sunday morning, all bore the marks of heavy beatings to the head and body. One of the pickers had a nasty, untreated knife wound on his arm. Police would learn later that another man had his hands chained behind his back every night to prevent him escaping, leaving his wrists swollen.

The migrants were not only forced to work in sub-human conditions but mistreated and forced into debt. They were locked up at night and had to pay for sub-standard food. If they took a shower with a garden hose or bucket, it cost them $5.

Their story of slavery and abuse in the fruit fields of sub-tropical Florida threatens to lift the lid on some appalling human rights abuses in America today.

Between December and May, Florida produces virtually the entire US crop of field-grown fresh tomatoes. Fruit picked here in the winter months ends up on the shelves of supermarkets and is also served in the country's top restaurants and in tens of thousands of fast-food outlets.

But conditions in the state's fruit-picking industry range from straightforward exploitation to forced labour. Tens of thousands of men, women and children excluded from the protection of America's employment laws and banned from unionising work their fingers to the bone for rates of pay which have hardly budged in 30 years.

Until now, even appeals from the former president Jimmy Carter to help raise the wages of fruit-pickers have gone unheeded. However, with Florida looming as a key battleground during the the next presidential election, there is hope that their cause will be raised by the Democratic candidates Barack Obama and John Edwards.

Fruit-pickers, who typically earn about $200 (100) a week, are part of an unregulated system designed to keep food prices low and the plates of America's overweight families piled high. The migrants, largely Hispanic and with many of them from Mexico, are the last wretched link in a long chain of exploitation and abuse. They are paid 45 cents (22p) for every 32-pound bucket of tomatoes collected. A worker has to pick nearly two-and-a-half tons of tomatoes a near impossibility in order to reach minimum wage. So bad are their working and living conditions that the US Department of Labour, which is not known for its sympathy to the underdog, has called it "a labour force in considerable distress".

A week after the escapees managed to emerge from the van in which they had been locked up for the night, police discovered that a forced labour operation was supplying fruit-pickers to local growers. Court papers describe how migrant workers were forced into debt and beaten into going to work on farms in Florida, as well as in North and South Carolina. Detectives found another 11 men who were being kept against their will in the grounds of a Florida house shaded by palm trees. The bungalow stood abandoned this week, a Cadillac in the driveway alongside a black and chrome pick-up truck with a cowboy hat on the dashboard. The entire operation was being run by the Navarettes, a family well known in the area.

Also near by was the removals van from which Mariano Lucas, one of the first to escape, punched his way through a ventilation hatch to freedom in the early hours of 18 November. With him were Jose Velasquez, who had bruises on his face and ribs and a cut forearm, and Jose Hari. The men told police they had to relieve themselves inside the van. Other migrant workers were kept in other vehicles and sheds scattered around the garden.

Enslaved by the Navarettes for more than a year, the men had been working in blisteringly hot conditions, sometimes for seven days a week. Despite their hard work, they were mired in debt because of the punitive charges imposed by their employer, who is being held on minor charges while a grand jury investigates his alleged involvement in human trafficking.

The men had to pay to live in the back of vans and for food. Their entire pay cheques went to the Navarettes and they were still in debt. They slept in decrepit sheds and vehicles in a yard littered with rubbish. When one man did not want to go to work because he was sick, he was allegedly pushed and kicked by the Navarettes. "They physically loaded him in the van and made him go to work that day. Cesar, Geovanni and Martin Navarette beat him up and as a result he was bleeding in his mouth," a grand jury was told.

The complaint reveals that the men were forced to pay rent of $20 (10) a week to sleep in a locked furniture van where they had no option but to urinate and defecate in a corner. They had to pay $50 a week for meals mostly rice and beans with meat perhaps twice a week if they were lucky. The fruit-pickers' caravans, which they share with up to 15 other men, rent for $2,400 a month more per square foot than a New York apartment and are less than 10 minutes' walk from the hiring fair where the men show up before sunrise. At least half those who come looking for work are not taken on.

Florida has a long history of exploiting migrant workers. Farm labourers have no protection under US law and can be fired at will. Conditions have barely changed since 1960 when the journalist Edward R Murrow shocked Americans with Harvest Of Shame, a television broadcast about the bleak and underpaid lives of the workers who put food on their tables. "We used to own our slaves but now we just rent them," Murrow said, in a phrase that still resonates in Immokalee today.

For several years, a campaign has been under way to improve the workers' conditions. After years of talks, a scheme to pay the tomato pickers a penny extra per pound has been signed off by McDonald's, the world's biggest restaurant chain, and by Yum!, which owns 35,000 restaurants including KFC, Pizza Hut and Taco Bell. But Burger King, which also buys its tomatoes in Immokalee, has so far refused to participate, threatening the entire scheme.

"We see no legal way of paying these workers," said Steve Grover, the vice-president of Burger King. He complained that a local human rights group, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers "has gone after us because we are a known brand". But he added: "At the end of the day, we don't employ the farmworkers so how can we pay them?"

Burger King will not pay the extra penny a pound that the tomato-pickers are demanding he said. "If we agreed to the penny per pound, Burger King would pay about $250,000 annually, or $100 per worker. How does that solve exploitation and poverty?" he asked.

Burger King is not the only buyer digging in its heels. Whole Foods Market, which recently expanded into Britain with a store in London's upmarket suburb of Kensington, has been discovered stocking tomatoes from one of the most notorious Florida sweatshop producers. Whole Foods ignored an appeal by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers to pay an extra penny a pound for its tomatoes.

In a statement Whole Foods said it was "committed to supporting and promoting economically, environmentally, and socially sustainable agriculture" and supports "the right of all workers to be treated fairly and humanely."

The Democratic candidates for the presidency do not often talk about exploited migrant workers, but there are hints that Barack Obama will visit the Immokalee fruit pickers sometime before Florida's primary election on 5 February.

Jimmy Carter recently joined the campaign to improve the lot of fruit-pickers, appealing to Burger King and the growers "to restore the dignity of Florida's tomato industry". His appeal fell on deaf ears but 100 church groups, including the Catholic bishop of Miami, joined him.

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