05/06/2006 01:18 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

From the RFK Memorial Poverty Tour: Fields Ripe with Injustice

In 1966, Robert F. Kennedy first walked with disenfranchised farmworkers in Delano, California to learn their story and to see what he could do to bring hardworking people some justice. Forty years later, Ethel Kennedy and AFL-CIO President John Sweeney walked with members of the southwest Florida based farmworker's rights group the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in the impoverished farmworker community of Immokalee, FL. This was the first stop of the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Poverty Tour: a Journey for Economic and Social Justice commemorating the 40th anniversary of RFK's original "poverty tour".

As part of the Senate Labor Subcommittee on Migratory Labor, RFK attended a hearing in Delano, CA about the United Farm Workers' ongoing strike and boycott of table grapes in California and Arizona. What Kennedy saw reminded him of the voting rights struggles in the South to which he devoted so much of his energy as Attorney General. When farmworkers tried to organize they were met with violence--much like civil rights activists in the South--and national labor laws had systematically denied rights to farmworkers that were extended to just about every other part of society--much like Jim Crow had denied voting rights to African-Americans. Robert Kennedy went on to befriend United Farm Worker leader Cesar Chavez, whom he called "one of the heroic figures of our time," and became a national voice in support of farmworker's rights.

But forty years later, pay and conditions have not improved for farmworkers. The struggle for dignity and rights for farmworkers still continues, and groups like the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) have picked up the torch. A farmworker picking tomatoes in Immokalee earns only 40-45 cents for each 32 pound bucket he or she picks, a rate that has remained stagnant for almost 30 years. This translates to a 65% real wage decrease due to inflation. In order to bring home $50 a worker must pick nearly two tons of tomatoes. The average farmworker income, $7500, is well below the federal poverty line. In Immokalee, Florida, farmworkers are forced to live in decrepit living quarters with floors completely covered with mattresses, paying as much as $160 a week for the privilege to live as CIW leader, and winner of the 2003 RFK Human Rights Award, Lucas Benitez put it, "like sardines."

Since 1997, thanks largely to investigations by the CIW, the FBI and US Justice Department have prosecuted six slavery cases in Florida's produce fields in recent years--freeing over 1,000 workers held against their will.

The Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Poverty Tour visited the site of one such case, where more than thirty farmworkers were kept for months in a broken-down double wide trailer and threatened at gun-point if they tried to flee their captors. During the day they were accompanied to the field to pick tomatoes by their enslaver, a labor contractor, with a shotgun in his hand. This enslaver was contracted to pick a portion of a grower's tomato crop. In order to remain economically viable and win contracts with powerful buyers like McDonald's and Chipotle Mexican Grill, whose growing purchasing power has significantly cut into growers' profit margins, growers work with labor contractors who provide labor at the lowest possible cost. The dependence of growers on ever lower labor costs has pushed many to work with contractors, as in this case, who utilize violence, intimidation, and enslavement. As reported in the Fort Myers News Press, after three years in federal prison and a five year suspension from agricultural labor contracting, the enslaver in this case, now works for a cherry tomato supplier for McDonald's Corporation.

Shockingly, people continue to be enslaved in United States of America in the year 2006. To what end? Just to get cheaper tomatoes for salads and sandwiches? How can executives at McDonald's and Chipotle sleep at night knowing their purchasing practices have led hardworking people to live in the kind of squalor that exists in Immokalee or worse, live in slavery?

Robert Kennedy once said "there is another kind of violence, slower but just as deadly destructive as the bomb or the shot in the night. This is the violence of institutions; indifference and inaction and slow decay."

The farmworkers of Immokalee, Florida toil in fields ripe with institutional indifference. Big tomato buyers like McDonald's and Chipotle and the growers that supply them have looked the other way while thousands of farmworkers have been exploited and the victims of horrendous human rights abuses. Hardworking men and women in the fields of Florida have long suffered under not just the threat and reality of physical violence and forced labor, but the constant violence of an inhumane system that exists because companies like McDonald's and Chipotle that are in a position to stop these abuses simply do not have the will or the compassion.

This isn't just about the morality of the system. Whether or not McDonald's, Chipotle or other companies recognize it, by not stopping the systematic human rights abuses in their supply chain they are breaking international human rights laws. Evaluating business practices and devising supplier codes of conduct that respect the humanity of those who work in your supply chain should not be left to public relations staff. Social responsibility is more than marketing. Flashy ads and packaging will not solve the problem. Without meaningful participation from the farmworkers there is no guarantee the exploitation and enslavement will not continue in Florida's tomato fields. Indeed, this is what human rights law calls for.

If slavery and poverty in our fields is ever to be abolished, executives at McDonald's, Chipotle and other major produce buyers must enter into true partnerships with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and take meaningful steps to ensure the human rights of those who bring food to our tables.

The Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Center for Human Rights is a non-profit organization that engages in long-term partnerships with human rights activists in 21 countries around the world, including the United States, advocating for the social justice goals they champion.