Want to know the root of the global economic crash? Go to Florida.
Yes, the state's become infamous for its manic house "flipping," but in a deeper sense the crash can best be understood by paying attention to other disturbing news from Florida. Just drive northwest from Miami to Immokalee. If you've bought tomatoes this winter, there's a good chance they were harvested here. And there you'll see it.
We all know that when a big tree is toppled in a storm, its roots get exposed. In today's financial hurricane, big roots are sticking out of Immokalee's sandy soils. There, this week, as part of a delegation sponsored by Just Harvest, suddenly abstract economic "forces" got very real for me -- embodied in human lives, human faces. Chief Assistant U.S. Attorney General Doug Molloy described as "slavery, plain and simple"* some of what is happening here: For locking up, beating and threatening field workers-- some for up to two years -- seven prosecutions in a dozen years have sent men to prison. I got to see the "legal" parts of what's going on.
Twenty thousand farm workers live in Immokalee, and each day many gather at dawn hoping a grower will choose them to pick tomatoes till dusk.
They are legally covered by the minimum wage, but in practice, they often don't even get that. Nor do they benefit from many of the other labor laws that protect the rest of us. They must work as fast as possible to fill and haul as many 32-pound buckets as possible, each bringing them 40 to 50 cents. I'd thought I was pretty strong but was humbled by lifting even one over my head for throwing into a truck; and to earn even $6.00 an hour I'd have to lift and haul 100 such buckets in an eight-hour day.
But there's a theft of dignity happening off the fields, too. I toured a sample of workers' living quarters: a dilapidated, grungy, unheated, un-air-conditioned two-room, 300 square-foot trailer. Eight guys sleep here, and from them the landlord rakes in a total of almost $1,300 a month.
Why do I call this modern-day form of slavery and its legal face -- this kind of gross injustice -- the secret of today's imploding economies? It is simple. A market economy only works if people -- all people -- can participate in it, and do so from a position of real choice not coercion and fear. And that's exactly what's been disappearing from the face of the earth.
Because of the fantastical notion that a market driven largely by a single rule, by highest return to existing wealth, can sustain itself. It cannot, for wealth returns to wealth until, as in Monopoly, the game abruptly ends. Inequalities have been worsening -- in some cases like the U.S. and India quite rapidly -- in two-thirds of the world's nations in the last 15 years. The gap between compensation to CEOs and workers has leapt ten-fold in three decades. This isn't just an equity debacle; it is a market debacle.
When one family, the Walton's, controls as much wealth as the bottom 40 percent of Americans, and when 400 people control as much as half the world's population, markets get wacky: Not only do customers for even sweatshop-made goods shrink, but ever-more concentrated private-money power infuses itself into public decision making; it then uses that clout to further remove transparency and commonsense safeguards against shady financial instruments, modern-day enslavement, and monopoly control -- all of which contribute to the death of a market.
This is why I see the treatment of Immokalee workers as the embodied cause of our global financial meltdown. Their plight should alert us! We've drunk the market Kool-Aid -- the baseless idea that the market can work without us. Without citizens placing values around the market, wealth won't circulate. Nor can we all participate in the market from the ground of dignity. Without that, a storm will blow in sooner or later that will fell even the biggest tree.
Let's have the guts to examine the roots now exposed.
If you'd like to stand with these workers and for yourself, you can. (Note that even if tomato pickers doubled their per bucket pay, their share would come to just over one percent of the $2.00 a pound you might pay for tomatoes.) Here's our opportunity: The human rights-award-winning organization, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers has in the last four years won commitments from five giant food companies to pay a penny a pound more for tomatoes. But the growers' association refuses to let its members pass that fairer pay on to the workers.
So on Monday, March 9, Coalition members showed up at the office of the Governor of Florida, Charlie Crist (R), who had long refused their repeated requests to meet. Click here to email Governor Crist today! Ask him stand up for these workers' rights and to stand up for all of us: for the best thing that could happen to our sick economy is for those at the bottom to advance. Click here to download the petition (pdf) and collect signatures in your own community.
* The quote from Chief Assistant U.S. Attorney General Doug Molloy may found in an article (9/3/08) which requires purchase from the archives of Newspress, Ft Meyers, FL.
UPDATE FROM FRANCES MOORE LAPPE 4/7/09: After my visit and an action at the capitol by the farmworkers (3/35/09), Governor Crist issued a letter of support. Check with the Coalition of Immokalee Farmworkers for the action we all can take to support them.
Frances Moore Lappe is author of Getting a Grip: Clarity, Creativity & Courage in a World Gone Mad and Diet for a Small Planet, among many other works. Visit her at www.smallplanet.org.