Bringing slavery into the open

December 1, 2010

Silvia Giagnoni, author of the forthcoming book Fields of Resistance: The Struggle of Florida's Farmworkers for Justice, reports from Montgomery, Ala., on a visit by a traveling museum that documents the conditions of slavery that still exist today.

"I THINK there's a typo here." The woman is pointing to the date in the caption: 1996. On display, there's a dirty, bloody shirt that visibly holds a poignant significance. The shirt belongs to a 17-year-old Guatemalan farmworker; he was beaten because he asked for water. Twice. The crew leader thought he deserved a lesson.

No, there's no typo. The incident occurred in Immokalee, and contrary to what the woman thinks, Immokalee is in the United States.

Fourteen years have passed since the incident, and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) has been able to significantly change the culture that dominated in the Florida fields up to the 1990s, where the growers and their supervisors acted with impunity.

The week before Thanksgiving, the CIW's traveling Florida Modern-Day Slavery Museum visited Montgomery, Ala.--once capital of the Confederate States of America, later fulcrum of the civil rights movement.

After touring the state of Florida and the Northeast, the CIW's museum--whose exhibits are mostly hosted in a large cargo container, a replica of the one used to keep workers captive overnight in a recently uncovered slavery operation--embarked on a journey through the Deep South. The tour initially took off in October, but the truck's engine broke down in Tallahassee, and several dates had to be rescheduled.

Exhibits in the Florida Modern-Day Slavery Museum are displayed inside a cargo container
Exhibits in the Florida Modern-Day Slavery Museum are displayed inside a cargo container (Silvia Giagnoni)

The Florida Modern-Day Slavery Museum finally arrived at Auburn University in Montgomery (AUM) on November 17. AUM students, faculty and staff had the opportunity to talk to CIW and Student/Farmworker Alliance representatives. The day after, the truck was parked in downtown Montgomery, at the Court Square, which once served as a location for the slave trade.

The museum visitors were engaged in a type of conversation that Alabamians rarely have: about power structures, corporations' accountability and workers' rights. Even in academic settings, these issues are hardly ever discussed, and when they are, they often find either a hostile or a skeptical audience, imbued with beliefs and attitudes that have been articulated by religious discourses in such a way that these topics have been either cut off from the conversation or highly demonized and labeled as anti-American, communist and the like.

As a result, it was to the museum visitors' surprise to find that slavery still exists today in the fields of Florida and the Southeast. Now it's called "modern-day slavery," but the name alteration doesn't reflect a substantial change in the basic definition of what slavery is: the condition of not being free.

What has changed is the fact that the ones who practice slavery today need to hide it; they need to make it invisible. Only the state (with the aid of more and more private contractors...) is allowed to decide upon the deprivation of liberty of its residing members (citizens and, to a certain extent, noncitizens with detention centers) and the termination of one's life (with the death penalty) in a rather socially accepted and rarely questioned way.

After the Emancipation Proclamation, Southern farmers and forest industry firms had to find alternatives to the once large populations of available free labor. Then, the convict-lease system was created, and labor exploitation in the fields went on. It's worth noting that "Florida and Alabama were the last states to abolish their county lease systems in 1923," as we read in the CIW's companion to the exhibit.

Farmworkers--on the East Coast, poor whites and African Americans--began to follow the harvest to make a living. They were paid meager wages for their labor and lived a life of misery, with little hope that their children would be able to have a better future, as Ed Murrow documented in his 1960s Harvest of Shame, a CBS report on the plight of the migrant workers.

WHAT THE CIW's exhibit does is inform its visitors about lesser-known histories; as Douglas A. Blackmon's book Slavery By Another Name (2008) shows, the exploitation of African Americans continued well beyond the legal abolishment of slavery.

In addition, as Blacks moved up north and relocated to urban areas, new subaltern groups (primarily from Mexico and the Caribbean in the Southeast) were exploited through the establishment of guest worker programs that were intended to supply a cheap and submissive workforce to the agricultural industry. The Bracero program between Mexico and the U.S. was finally terminated in 1964 due to the many abuses perpetrated against the participating workers.

For U.S. growers, the creation of Labor Importation Program and the successive guest worker programs was doubly profitable: domestic workers were no longer able to negotiate their wages up, and foreign workers could be easily repatriated and replaced. As a result, a more domesticated agricultural labor force was created, and the exploitation in the fields continued.

Guest worker programs are divided today into the H-2A agricultural program and H-2B non-agricultural program. As the Southern Poverty Law Center's report Close to Slavery (2007) illustrates, lack of employer's accountability, little enforcement of labor and human rights, and, ultimately, lack of awareness of the existing legal protections available to temporary unskilled workers make foreign labor force easily exploitable.

Migrant workers have no or little ability to enforce their rights, and abuses of power are the norm. As a result, slavery still occurs in agriculture as in other sectors of the national economy (forestry, landscaping, meatpacking, seafood processing and construction), and exploitative conditions are the norm. The situation is particularly harsh for women who need to deal with near constant sexual harassment in the workplace.

When undocumented, workers are even more vulnerable and apt to be exploited by cruel employers. Over the years, the twisted logic of maximizing profit at any cost has led all the major players in the food chain to cut labor costs to the point that in Florida, farmworkers still earn an average of 45 cents per bushel of tomatoes, a rate that has not risen much since the late 1970s.

However, things are about to change for the better. In the last 15 years, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers has raised awareness around issues of labor exploitation and human rights in the fields, mobilized college students and religious communities across the country, and pressured other thousands of consumers to call fast-food chains and now supermarkets to task.

It's a winning strategy--on November 14, the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange (FTGE) signed a historic agreement with the CIW. The accord ends a 15-year old obstructionist stance of an organization that represents over 90 percent of the state's farmers. Perhaps it's a sign of the beginning of new times for U.S. agriculture.

As did several other high-ranked representatives of corporations, FTGE Vice President Reggie Brown went from saying that the CIW's methods are "un-American" to agreeing to implement the organization's proposed Code of Conduct.

So the FTGE eventually came around. In February, the organization lifted its sanctions against growers who decided to comply with the "penny-per-pound" tomato program. At the height of the Burger King campaign (in November 2007), the FTGE had threatened to fine up to $100,000 any member that agreed to pay the pickers one cent more per pound, and thus comply with agreements signed with Taco Bell and McDonald's.

The FTGE then launched a New Social Responsibility Program. But it didn't meet the Coalition's standards since it totally lacked worker participation.

According to the newly signed agreement, participating farms will implement the Fair Food Code of Conduct, which also enables the CIW to educate workers about their rights and tomato pickers to express concerns over safety and working conditions without fear of retaliation. FTGE member farms "will pass through the penny-per-pound from participating purchasers and cooperate with a financial audit of the penny-per-pound funds," according to a joint press release from the two organizations.

SO, YES, slavery still exists in the United States. What doesn't is the awareness of it, especially in certain areas of the country. Here in the Deep South, people think of slavery, and the past yet vivid reality of the African American experience comes to mind. Most whites don't want to be reminded of that, and Blacks prefer not to talk about it in the company of whites. It's a taboo issue: religion and politics combined. Both groups, however, are largely unaware of its contemporary manifestations, victims and its very existence in this country.

Around here, conservatives (read the vast majority of the population regardless of their party affiliation) attribute to Latino immigrants a series of stereotypes based on little statistical or logical support (they don't pay taxes, they take American jobs, they don't want to learn English, etc., etc.)--without acknowledging (but I should say knowing) how U.S. policies expediently created a demand for foreign labor to meet the requests of big growers, and, more recently, contributed to the rise of immigration flows from Central America by signing the 1994's NAFTA agreements.

Most Latino farmworkers today are economic refugees; too many are here because the land they or their families once owned had been confiscated in their country of origins and made available to corporations for large-scale agriculture. Instead of committing suicide in mass numbers like in India, they decide to migrate to better provide for their families.

In fact, what's rarely discussed in the public discourses is that illegal labor serves the interests of corporations and big companies: it helps to hold down wages for the U.S. labor force in ways resembling how convict-leasing was once depressing wages for free workers. Right-wing talk about "illegal immigration" resorts to scapegoating practices intended to divert public attention to from real problems the country and the rest of the world are facing.

The Federation for American Immigration Reform--which pompously promoted itself as FAIR, deploying a strategy not so different from the "Fair and Balanced" slogan of Fox News--is now supporting a restrictionist approach to immigration known as "attrition through enforcement." Following the logic of Arizona's SB 1070, the approach is intended to make the lives of Latinos in the U.S. nearly impossible.

Such as a solution to the problem is based on a culture of suspicion that disregards people's humanity and accepts the bottom line as a guide for one's daily conduct. A recent National Public Radio report showed how a behind-the-scenes effort to help pass the law was pushed by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a nonprofit member organization of state legislators and other private big companies.

According to the NPR report, one of ALEC's longtime members, the Corrections Corporation of America, practically lobbied to pass the legislation, which would clearly benefit the private prison industry by creating opportunities to build more correction facilities for "illegal aliens" in the state of Arizona and wherever else a similar legislation was passed--so far, similar bills have been introduced in five states.

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers has done a remarkable job of fighting the logic of profit by promoting a culture of solidarity. Its recent victory and efforts to redress the public understanding and history of slavery and labor exploitation in the Southeast are inspiring and should remind us all that, yes, we might have a long way to go, but change is still possible.

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