Testimony by Lucas Benitez
Before the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee
It is a tremendous honor to be here today testifying in front of this committee in such a storied institution as the United States Senate.
I thank you for this once in a lifetime opportunity.
At the same time, of course, the reason I am here is very troubling. The sad fact is that we are here today because there is slavery in the fields in the United States in the 21st century.
Exactly 200 years ago, in an act now mostly forgotten in the pages of history, the Congress of the United States voted to end the importation of slaves into this country.
200 years ago, the opponents of that law argued that the slaves were happy with their lot, that they were certainly better off than where they came from, and that agriculture in this country would surely collapse if this law were to pass.
200 years ago, the choice before Congress seemed very complicated and controversial. But in the end, the people’s representatives voted in favor of human rights and so advanced the cause of human dignity.
Today, 200 years later, I sit before you representing the Campaign for Fair Food – a campaign with the objective of eliminating modern-day slavery and sweatshop conditions in the fields of Florida.
I work with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. Our members pick tomatoes and oranges during 8-9 months of the year and then follow the crops up the East Coast during the summer.
I came to this country from Mexico at the age of 17 with the hope of being able to help support my parents and my family. I began to work in the harvest of oranges and tomatoes.
The job of picking tomatoes is hard and heavy, dirty and dangerous. You run all day under a burning sun with a 32-pound bucket on your shoulder, carrying it from the row where you are picking to the truck where you dump it out — and back — that is when you aren’t stooped over picking tomatoes. At the end of the day the cramps don’t let you sleep.
Not only is your body exhausted, but so is your spirit after having to put up with the yelling of your supervisors all day.
One example from my own experience may help to illustrate that point. One day a few years ago, I was working on a very isolated farm staking tomatoes.
I got ahead of the rest of the crew and when I stopped for a moment to catch my breath, the boss yelled at me, got down from his truck, and he threatened to beat me up if I didn’t go back to work immediately.
I was alone in the middle of hundreds of acres of fields, miles from any town. One of our reasons for organizing the Coalition was so that no one would ever have to feel that alone again in the fields.
For women who work in the fields, in addition to putting up with all of that, they also have to endure an environment charged with sexual harassment.
And workers know that if you try to complain about these abuses the next day you’ll have no work.
All that I’ve mentioned is what happens to workers who are free. Forced labor is something else altogether.
Others here will speak in more detail about slavery, but I assure you that the seven cases that have been uncovered in the fields of Florida are just the tip of the iceberg.
Countless more workers have suffered the humiliation of beatings, rapes, and wage theft by their bosses over the last ten years, and today we have more cases that are being investigated that aren’t yet in court.
Truly, my job here today – to paint a picture for you of the life of a farmworker – is almost impossible.
It is so difficult because, for years, farm work has been the exclusive domain of such a small and marginalized portion of the overall US population that the vast majority of Americans for several generations now, have no context in which to understand the reality of work in the fields.
And the growers know this well. That is how they have been able to make the clear seem complicated, and the obvious so controversial.
Take the issue of wages, for example.
Incredibly, even this issue – that farmworkers are poor – has been made complicated with the growers’ statements that farmworkers earn an average of $12.46 per hour when picking tomatoes.
To dispute that, I could cite reports from the US Department of Labor, an objective source that confirms the obvious – that farmworkers are the poorest and least protected workers in the country.
Or I could cite the opinion of a respected voice from the industry, the editor of “Produce Business” Magazine, who says that the growers’ public relations strategy of focusing on an hourly wage could never cover up the fact that farm work is a full time job with irregular hours with which a farmworker will never be able to get his family out of poverty.
But these arguments are just more words. I want to make this as clear as possible.
And so I say to you today: Fine. We’ll take it.
If Mr. Brown can guarantee $12.46 an hour, backed up by a verifiable system of hours with time clocks in the fields, and thereby eliminate the antiquated system of work by the piece, we’ll take it.
If they say they pay already $12.46 an hour, then there should be no problem with really paying it.
Unfortunately, I don’t have be a fortuneteller to know their response.
If we really want to put an end to this eternal debate about farmworkers wages,
it’s simple: have the tomato industry implement a surcharge the same way they’ve done three times in the last few years to cover other production costs – like pesticides and diesel.
And just like with the other surcharges — there will be no impact on the market.
But in this case, the money won’t be going to Exxon or to Monsanto, but directly to the families of thousands of the poorest workers in the country.
To close, I want to tell you a story from our past.
In 1997, during the 30 day hunger strike by 6 of our members, a friend of ours asked a grower why they weren’t willing to talk to us, and the grower answered, “Let me put it to you like this – the tractor doesn’t tell the farmer how to run the farm.”
That’s how they’ve always seen us – as just another tool, and nothing more.
But we aren’t alone anymore. Today there are millions of consumers with us willing to use their buying power to eliminate the exploitation behind the food they buy.
A new dawn for social responsibility in the agricultural industry is on its way.
With the help of Congress, and with the faith that the complicated will be made clear under the purifying light of human rights – today, just as it was 200 years ago – we will witness the dawn of that new day.