Dean Rohrer

Justice from Tomatoes

Florida tomato pickers are winning their fight for higher wages and better working conditions. More important, their struggle not only underscores the obstacles confronting workers’ organizations in an era of outsourcing and global supply chains, but also might serve as a model for workers in other industries.

NEW YORK – The last fast-food hamburger you ate may have cost you next to nothing. But what did the tomato slice on that burger cost the worker who got it there? Almost anywhere in the world – including in the United States – the cost can be shockingly high.

Appalling wages are just the start. In Florida, tomato pickers earn an average of just $0.50 for every 32-pound (14.5-kilogram) bucket. A worker who picks all day – backbreaking labor that starts before dawn – is lucky to earn $10,500 a year, placing him below the poverty line.

Then there are the alarming human-rights violations. In Mexico, authorities recently freed almost 300 people, including 39 teenagers, who were being “held in slave-like conditions at a camp where tomatoes are sorted and packed for export.” US federal authorities have called Florida’s tomato fields “ground zero for modern-day slavery.” The abuses of farm workers by agribusiness interests there have been serious and systematic.

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