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'The Harvest of Shame'

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Last January, I visited Immokalee, Florida, to get a first-hand view of what was going on in the farm fields of Florida. On one of the days when I was there, a federal grand jury handed up an indictment alleging that workers were held in conditions that amounted to slavery. On Tuesday, a Senate panel convened a hearing into what long ago was called the "harvest of shame."

Let me very briefly tell you what I observed and what I learned from talking with a number of workers who pick tomatoes. At 5:30 am I was in a parking lot in central Immokalee and saw hundreds of workers mulling around for buses to take them to tomato fields. While most of the workers were selected to board buses and go to work, not all were. Those who were not picked earned no income at all during that day. Also, if it rains, as it did when I was there, workers are sent away from the fields and do not earn income for those hours.

In talking with workers who go out into the fields I learned that they make approximately 45 cents for every 32-pound bucket of tomatoes they pick. This wage has not increased since 1998; and in fact, farm worker wages have dropped 65 percent in the last 30 years, after adjusting for inflation. I also learned that while it is possible under optimum conditions to make as much as $10-$12 an hour, the average hourly wage is far lower than that. In fact, most workers in the tomato fields earn about $250 a week in income. Why are wages so low?

I also learned that there is no overtime when workers work more than 8 hours a day or 40 hours a week. There are no benefits. Health care is a serious problem especially for people who do hard, physical work as they do in the tomato fields, yet employers offer no health insurance. The housing that I saw was deplorable and extremely expensive. It was not uncommon for eight or 10 workers to be paying $500 a month to live in a trailer which, in the city where I was mayor, would never have passed a safety inspection.

"Is it really going to take an act of Congress to get Florida's tomato pickers a raise?" an editorial in the St. Petersburg Times asked. "The men and women who work the fields in Immokalee earn 45 cents on average for every 32-pound bucket of tomatoes harvested. It is a meager wage that has not been raised in more than 20 years. Yet when a couple of fast food giants generously agreed to pay workers an added penny per pound, the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange sabotaged the deal and has refused to negotiate even after congressional leaders offered to be intermediaries."

The editorial goes on to say that: "The truth is that Florida's migrant farm laborers are among the worst paid workers in the state. They haven't had a piece rate increase in a generation, and the Growers Exchange wants to keep it that way. Even when someone else is willing to foot the bill."

Thankfully, due to the dedication and hard work of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, the conditions that exist in the Florida tomato fields has begun to come to light. As a direct result of the coalition's efforts, two large fast food companies -- McDonald's and Yum! Brands, whose subsidiaries include Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Long John Silvers and A&W -- have agreed to supplement the pay of these workers at a rate of an additional penny per pound for the tomatoes they buy. McDonald's and Yum! are to be commended for their commitment to help alleviate the despicable situation in the Florida tomato fields. Sadly, some other fast food companies, like Burger King, are resisting making a similar move which for a minimal cost would almost double the income of the Florida tomato workers.

In addition, the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange has threatened fines of up to $100,000 to any grower that cooperates in implementing the penny per pound agreements, something that I simply cannot comprehend. I have met with Reggie Brown with the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange personally about this subject, and I am pleased that he could join us today to explain this situation in greater detail.

Unfortunately, this is not a new problem. In 1960, Edward R. Murrow described the horrendous situation facing farm laborers in his famous TV documentary as a "Harvest of Shame." Tragically, almost 50 years later, not much has changed. Farm laborers, mostly migrant workers, continue to be ruthlessly exploited with low pay and poor working conditions.

In an era of globalization, the American people are becoming more and more concerned not only about the quality of goods they consume, but about the conditions facing those who produce those goods. In my view, the American consumer does not want the tomatoes they eat to be picked by workers who are grossly mistreated, underpaid, and in some case even kept in chains. This must not happen in the United States of America in 2008.

What is going on in Immokalee and other regions of Florida is deplorable and at its core repugnant to the values that our country is built upon. I hope Senate hearings will begin to shine a spotlight on the harvest of shame that is going on to this day in the tomato fields in Florida and will lay the groundwork for the legislative changes that will be needed if the large buyers of tomatoes in the fast food and supermarket industry and the large growers continue to resist the reforms that are desperately needed.

The time is now that large corporations like Burger King and recalcitrant growers that continue to profit from the slavery and near-slavery like conditions in the tomato fields of Florida begin to pay a price in the marketplace, in the court of public opinion, and, if necessary, in the United States Congress. I truly believe that, once they learn the truth, "American consumers will not patronize companies that continue to profit from the current situation.

In the United States of America, millions of workers are being forced into a race to the bottom. As poverty increases and the middle class shrinks, they are seeing their standard of living decline. They are working longer hours for lower wages, and are losing their health insurance, pensions and other benefits. What we have in the tomato fields of Florida are workers who are living on the lowest rung of the ladder in that race to the bottom. We must address their plight not only from a moral perspective, but with the understanding that if we look the other way, and accept the terrible exploitation they are suffering, every American worker is in danger as that race to the bottom accelerates.

Senator Bernie Sanders, independent of Vermont, is a member of the U.S. Senate's Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee which held a hearing on this issue on Tuesday, April 15. To read more about the Immokalee farm workers, click here.