Tomatoes and Slavery…. Wait what?

by Greer Gregory

It’s easy to get Taco Bell every day at the Union without realizing the shocking cost of your taco. As middle class, consumer Americans living in an economically booming, resource-wealthy city, we support multi-million dollar corporations without a second thought. We are not brought up to think about where each ingredient in that taco came from or the exploitation that occurs behind the scenes of the fast food industry—all in the name of keeping prices so low. One example of a form of exploitation is in the major tomato fields of Florida, where modern-day slavery still exists.

Most people are unaware of the widespread exploitation that migrant workers in Florida are subjected to in the nation’s chief tomato-producing areas. On the small-scale, farmers are being held against their will and in the most extreme cases even beaten to make them pick tomatoes. Because of their extreme poverty and lack of mobility they have to stay. In addition, due to the diminishing numbers of farm workers, they are being paid dramatically less than their labor is worth.

Similar to textile workers at the turn of the century, tomato farmers are paid by the piece. For every 32-lb bucket of tomatoes they pick, farmers receive 50 cents. At that rate, a worker would have to pick more than 2.25 tons of tomatoes to earn minimum wage in a regular 10-hour workday. This is almost double the amount a worker 30 years ago had to pick to receive minimum wage.

So, why is this happening? Well, on the other end of skyrocketing corporate profits, is the compromised livelihood of the laborers who offer the resources these companies could not succeed without. Within the last 20 years, attention has been brought to these ghastly conditions through worker’s strikes and marches initiated by the largest farm-worker community in Florida. Despite the danger and difficulty of their situation, these workers formed the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW): fighting for Rights, Respect, and Fair food.


The organization isn’t asking for much: respect and fair wages. They have written a Fair food code of conduct demanding rights that we simply take for granted such as regular hours and water and food breaks. Back in 1998, the group achieved the goal of increasing their wages; however, despite this increase, they still remain way below the poverty level and are now fighting for an increase of merely 1 cent per 32-lb bucket of tomatoes they pick.

The CIW has also been actively fighting for the enforcement of more stringent laws against those who violate workers’ rights, such as investigating and uncovering slavery rings and federally prosecute these violent employers. Most recently a grand jury indicted six people in Immokalee in 2008 for “slavery, plain and simple.” They were accused of “keeping, beating, and stealing from Immokalee laborers” if any of them tried to leave their employment. In addition they were holding their workers in debt and actually chaining some of them inside trucks as punishment. This is the seventh farm labor operation which to be prosecuted in a 15 year fight involving over 1,000 workers and more than a dozen employers.

Most recently the organization has battled the corporate food industry in their Campaign for Fair Food. In 2001 they held the first farm-worker boycott against Taco bell, and finally in 2005 they gave in to their terms of improving wages and working conditions. Since then they have reached McDonald’s  Burger King, Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, and most recently Chipotle in 2012. Just earlier this month, the CIW held a fifteen-day 200 mile march for Rights, Respect and Fair food ending outside the Publix corporate headquarters, a corporate food industry holder, gaining another corporation in support of the Fair Food campaign.

These little victories have been small steps in the continuing fight for fair treatment of farmers. Although progress is being made in the tomato industry, there are still many more ingredients in your Taco Bell taco. By bringing attention to the injustices farmers face in the tomato industry, it is my hope that people will begin to look for and seek to correct similar cases in other food industries. I urge you to think about where your food is coming from and consider that corporations like Taco Bell will always make decisions in the interest of their pocketbooks and not in your best interest and especially not in the interest of those lower down in the production chain. You, the consumer have the power to change exploitative practices in the food industry imposed by large corporations by being selective about where you choose to spend your money.

Greer is a History major at the University of Texas at Austin.



3 Comments Add yours

  1. Jeff Nguyen says:

    The CIW is a great organization, I was privileged to join them for two days on their recent march to Publix headquarters. Up, up with the fair food nation! Down, down with the exploitation!

  2. Asiago says:

    Glad you are learning about CIW. I remember a while back at UT seeing the Taco Bell on Campus have a sign that said that they were out of tomatoes during their one cent campaign.

    Can you source this line that you wrote? “This is almost double the amount a worker 30 years ago had to pick to receive minimum wage.”

    1. Greer says:

      yeah I found all my information off of the CIW website,

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