Standing on the rooftop of a one-story building at sunrise, in order to see a bird’s eye view of the small southwestern Florida city that I was visiting, draped in tallit and wrapped in tefillin, I recited the words of our morning liturgy: Baruch Atah Adonai Eloheinu Melekh HaOlam she’asani Ben-Chorin, Praised are You, Lord our God, Ruler of the Universe, who made me a free person. I recited these words while overlooking “the parking lot” that sits at the center of Immokalee, Florida, watching two dozen buses filled with tomato pickers drive away to the tomato fields that surround this small town.
The Department of Justice refers to Southwest Florida as “ground zero for
modern slavery.” In fact, according to US Attorney Douglas Molloy, anyone who has eaten a winter tomato has eaten a fruit picked by a slave. These migrant workers are enslaved to growers and crew leaders through coercion, force, fraud, and debt. I spent this week on a rabbinic delegation with T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights visiting the Coalition of Immokalee Workers to learn more about the unthinkable reality these workers in the tomato fields face. Many are forced laborers. These examples were highlighted during my visit to Florida’s Modern Slavery Museum, which offered a detailed and disturbing description of, among other things, the 2008 case of US vs. Navarrete in which Cesar and Geovanni Navarrete were each sentenced to 12 years in federal prison for beating, threaten, restraining, and locking workers in a truck at night — only showing them the light of day in order to head to the fields in the morning.
The Coalition of Immokalee Workers was founded over 20 years ago — and continues to be run — by Latino, Haitian, and Mayan Indian farmworkers. Farmworkers were intentionally left out of the National Labor Relations Act, making it possible for me to make a short couple of hours drive across the state of Florida and witness such terrible treatment of workers. For example, the tomato picker has been receiving roughly the same wage — paid by piece — since 1978, being paid approximately 50 cents for a 32 pound bushel of tomatoes picked. To put this into perspective, buying the same 32 pounds of tomatoes in the supermarket costs the consumer roughly $81. A picker would need to pick 153 overflowing bushels to just make minimum wage. The CIW explains: slavery is the extreme end of a continuum of abusive and exploitative labor practices. As an organization, they have worked to changed such exploitative labor practices and in doing so, have freed thousands from a path towards slavery through their Fair Food Program.
The Fair Food Program launched over a decade ago encourages corporations, most notably restaurant chains, supermarkets, and food service providers, to sign on, thus requiring the growers and farms that supply these corporations with tomatoes to take responsibility for human rights abuses in the field, improving wages and working conditions. The campaign asks corporation to pay an additional penny per pound of tomatoes in order to improve conditions and wages. Such a change guarantees fieldworkers can be paid per hour, rather than per piece, and can earn minimum wage. The Washington Post referred to this program as “one of the greatest human rights success stories of our day.”
This Shabbat is Shabbat Shira, the Sabbath of Song, as we read aloud the text of Exodus Chapter 15, the Song of the Sea, celebrating the Israelites’ journey from slavery to freedom. I gathered with other rabbis from the T’ruah delegation for a public action this past week at a Publix Supermarket in Naples, a short drive from the tomato fields of Immakolee. Singing the words of the Song of the Sea in the fruit and produce aisle, we encouraged the stores manager to speak with headquarters about the Fair Food Program. Other corporations, including Taco Bell, McDonald’s, Burger King, Subway, Chipotle, Aramark, Trader Joe’s, and Whole Foods have all signed on to the Coalition of Immakolee Worker’s Fair Food Program. They have done their part to eradicate modern-day slavery. Publix, the largest supermarket chain in Florida, strives to be the premier quality food retailer in the world, to be dedicated to Dignity, Value, and Employment Security among its Associates, and to be involved as Responsible Citizens in our Communities. Yet, Publix has refused to even sit down with the CIW. This is not a labor issue. This is not an altruistic issue. This is a human dignity issue.
In the Babylonian Talmud (Tractate Shabbat 54b) we learn “anyone who is able to protest against the transgressions of one’s townspeople and chooses not to, is punished for the transgressions of the townspeople; anyone who is able to protest against the transgressions of the entire world and chooses not to, is punished for the transgressions of the entire world.” If we do not stand up, if we do not step up, if we do not act and make our voices heard, then it is as if we are the taskmasters, we are the crew leaders and growers who continue this endless cycle of slavery.
Pirkei Avot 2:5 (The Ethics of our Sages) teaches us: Al Tifros Min HaTzibur, that we must not separate ourselves from the community. The successes of our neighbor are our successes. So too, the hardships of our neighbors are our hardships. So as we prepare to sing and celebrate the freedom of our own people, let us continue to fight for the dignity of all peoples.
– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky