Part One: “The New Day is not something that’s going to happen, the New Day is happening right now”…

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Since 2010, a metamorphosis has been underway in the Florida tomato industry, while in Mexico the industry’s counterpart has only sunk deeper into a morass of violence, corruption, poverty, and exploitation…

The quotation at the top of this post came from the Rev. Roy Terry of the United Methodist Church of Naples.  Rev. Terry spoke those words during a candlelight vigil held at the Duke University Chapel as part of last month’s Now Is the Time Tour.  The vigil was captured beautifully in the simple but moving video above.  It bears watching before reading on, if you haven’t already.

Duke_Vigil_9310_smWe begin Part One of this two-part series, entitled “Extreme Makeover: Florida Tomato Industry Edition,” with Rev. Terry’s words because in those words can be found the central theme of this post.  In short: In the space of just a few short years, a New Day of respect for fundamental human rights has dawned in Florida’s tomato fields, and that New Day has brought new life to an industry that, before the transformation, was fighting for its very survival.  

Through its partnership with the CIW in the Fair Food Program, the Florida tomato industry has left behind its often brutal past and found its way toward a more humane, more sustainable future, a future in which Florida tomato growers can embrace the demands of the 21st century marketplace with a product they can be proud of.  This new era of transparency and humane labor conditions now starkly differentiates Florida tomatoes from their principal competition in the marketplace, tomatoes from Mexico, where conditions have grown increasingly harsh — and prospects for independent oversight and protection of workers’ rights increasingly dim — during this same period.

Exactly how has this come to pass?  Let’s take a closer look at recent history on both sides of the border.

Florida, before 2010: “The norm is a disaster, and the extreme is slavery…”  

Senator Bernie Sanders, left, speaks during the April, 2008 US Senate Hearing into Farmworker Exploitation in Florida’s Tomato Fields.

In the fields:  Throughout the first decade of this century, the Florida tomato industry was in a tailspin. Labor conditions that could best be described as toxic were resulting in a steady stream of abuses in the fields, each more appalling than the last, causing low morale and an astronomical level of turnover. The 2008 slavery prosecution of US v. Navarrete marked the nadir of this sinking narrative, a case in which workers were locked with chains inside a box truck at night, their wages stolen, beaten when they complained.  The court transcript, reported in the Ft. Myers News-Press, left little room for nuance:

navarreteOne of the prosecutors, Susan French, called Cesar Navarrete the family’s “young patriarch.” Geovanni Navarrete was “the enforcer, the beater.”

“This defendant is the one who chained the worker’s feet to the pole,” French said of Geovanni, “the one who beat them, slapped them … multiple victims, multiple acts of violence, multiple injuries to the victims.”

One of the victims, Mariano Lucas Diego, spoke of what he’d endured: beatings and nighttime imprisonment in a truck, where the family’s captives would have to urinate and defecate in the corners.

Diego described pounding on the truck until he and another victim made a hole through which they squeezed out, then found a ladder so the others could escape.

Diego spoke of several beatings.

“Bosses should not beat up the people who work with them,” he told Judge John E. Steele.

In the Public Eye:  As the mounting abuses became too much to ignore, Florida tomato growers came under ever more intense scrutiny in the press, and the industry’s public image took a beating.  This was exacerbated by the industry’s decision in 2007 to boycott the CIW’s fledgling Fair Food Program.  In 2005, the CIW won its first Fair Food agreement, whereby Taco Bell’s parent company Yum Brands agreed to pay a penny more per pound for its tomatoes, with the money being passed on by its suppliers to increase the wages of those doing the picking.  The funds started to flow in the fall of 2005 and continued until the spring of 2007, when McDonald’s became the second company to sign a Fair Food agreement.  At that point, the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange, in an effort to derail the progress of the Fair Food Program, banned is members from passing on the penny-per-pound funds.  


Combined with the constant drumbeat of horrific headlines recounting stories of unchecked abuses in the fields, this stand drew the attention of lawmakers in Washington, who held a series of high-profile events to put pressure the industry to reform, including the April 2008 Senate hearing pictured above, entitled “US Senate Hearing into Farmworker Exploitation in Florida’s Fields”.   The Miami Herald reported at the time:

“WASHINGTON — Delivering a victory to farmworker groups that complain of paltry wages on Florida farms, senators said Tuesday they’ll ask federal investigators to determine whether migrant farm workers are being paid as much as the tomato industry claims.

The call to have the Government Accountability Office investigate came as Sens. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., and Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, pledged to back efforts to boost pay and improve working conditions for thousands of migrant workers picking tomatoes in Immokalee and throughout Florida.

”This is the beginning, this is not the end,” said Sanders, who toured the Collier County farming community in January and said he found the living conditions for workers ”deplorable.” He said the committee was likely to push for greater protection of farmworkers, including changes to federal trafficking statutes…”

The situation in Florida’s fields was summed up in a quote by Sen. Sanders during a fact-finding visit to Immokalee in 2008: “The norm is a disaster, and the extreme is slavery.

In the marketplace:  With books like Nobodies by Jon Bowe and Tomatoland by Barry Estabrook telling the story of Florida’s farm labor problems to the mainstream consumer, the industry’s already tight race with Mexican tomato producers for market share was made even more difficult.  Things were certainly no better for workers picking tomatoes in Mexico at the time, but all things being equal in terms of human rights on both sides of the border, the only distinguishing factor between the two products was price.  And Mexico was winning that race to the bottom handily, with even lower wages and less concern for human rights keeping its production costs to a minimum.

All in all, the future looked anything but bright for Florida tomato growers as the industry prepared to enter the second decade of the new century. 

Florida after 2010: “A Watershed Moment”… 

The CIW’s Julia Perkins, Lucas Benitez, and Gerardo Reyes join with Florida Tomato Grower Exchange Executive Vice President Reggie Brown to sign the Fair Food agreement in November 2010 that brought over 90% of Florida’s tomato industry into an unprecedented partnership with the CIW.

In November of 2010, however, the industry turned away from its troubled past and toward a bright new future of collaboration with its workers, protection of human rights in the fields, and a new competitive advantage that would give Florida tomato growers a much better chance to survive in the marketplace.  By joining with the CIW in the Fair Food Program, the farm labor issues that had been the industry’s glaring weakness would become its strength, as Florida tomato growers, virtually across the board, adopted the highest, most rigorously monitored and enforced human rights standards in the nation. 

joneIn a flurry of progress after nearly two decades of stalemate, Pacific Tomato Growers was the first to sign a Fair Food agreement with the CIW in October of 2010 (Jon Esformes, Operating Partner at Pacific Tomato Growers, is shown here on the right shaking hands with the CIW’s Oscar Otzoy at the signing ceremony), followed soon thereafter by Florida’s largest tomato grower, Lipman Produce.  With those two giants of the Florida tomato industry on board, it was only a matter of time before the rest of the industry followed suit, and on November 16th, 2010, the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange, represented by their Executive Vice President Reggie Brown, signed for over 90% of the industry in an historic ceremony outside the CIW’s headquarters in Immokalee.  At the time, the Associated Press reported:

… Reggie Brown (below, right), executive vice president of the exchange, said the decision to come to the table was based in part on growers’ desire to protect the welfare of workers and in part on survival.  He hopes a growing American appetite for locally grown produce – picked by workers earning fair wages – will give Florida tomatoes the edge in a highly competitive global market.

‘We are in tight competition with Mexican growers,’ Brown explained.  ‘We provide the majority of the domestically grown fresh tomatoes for about seven months of the year.  And if this is not a sustainable industry, then the U.S. will not produce tomatoes … then there’s no wages for anybody.’” 


In the press release announcing the agreement, Lucas Benitez (above, left), added:

“This is a watershed moment in the history of Florida agriculture.  With this agreement, the Florida tomato industry – workers and growers alike – is coming together in partnership to turn the page on the conflict and stagnation of the past and instead forge a new and stronger industry.”

“Make no mistake, there is still much to be done,” continued Benitez.  “This is the beginning, not the end, of a very long journey. But with this agreement, the pieces are now in place for us to get to work on making the Florida tomato industry a model of social accountability for the 21st century.”

It would, indeed, take much more hard work and commitment to get there.  Even as the ink dried on that historic agreement, the two sides immediately set about getting new structures in place to implement the Fair Food Program across virtually the entire Florida tomato industry, from Homestead south of Miami to Quincy west of Tallahassee.  The Fair Food Standards Council (FFSC), the independent third party auditing body that would monitor and enforce the agreement, was formed, and Judge Laura Safer Espinoza, a former New York State Supreme Court judge, was chosen to head up the fledgling team of auditors and investigators.  Its mission would be “to monitor the development of a sustainable Florida tomato industry that advances both the human rights of farmworkers and the long-term interests of growers through implementation of the Fair Food Program.”  


A 24-hour complaint line was established, and the CIW hired new staff to begin the hard, but exhilarating, job of worker-to-worker education on the farms to ensure that the industry’s 30,000 workers would know their rights under the Program and so be able to play a leading role in monitoring the new code.  And, finally, the Working Group was formed, bringing together a number of grower representatives with the CIW in a collaborative body that would translate the Fair Food Code of Conduct into an operational policy manual for implementing the code on the farms.  

For two seasons, the FFSC, the Working Group, and the CIW worked diligently to put the Program in place, ironing out wrinkles as they appeared, auditing the farms, processing complaints, and working through corrective action plans that, day by day, helped make Florida’s fields a more modern, more humane place to work.  After two seasons, the FFSC issued its first-ever annual report, which can be found here (and should be read by anyone who would like to read a real time accounting of history in the making).  Here’s an excerpt from the Executive Summary, detailing some of the efforts behind the implementation of the new norms during the first two seasons of the Fair Food Program:


These reforms have been monitored through an intensive, multi-faceted process with significant reach throughout the industry.  Through the Fair Food Program:

• Workers have brought forth over 300 complaints; 

• FFSC auditors have conducted nearly 60 comprehensive audits, visited 45 farm locations, and interviewed 4,000 workers to assess Participating Growers’ implementation of FFP standards; and

• The CIW has conducted 161 worker-to-worker education sessions, attended by well over 14,000 workers. 

Since the publication of the FFSC report in November of last year, the numbers of audits, education sessions, and complaints have continued to grow apace, with nearly 500 complaints received and processed to date and thousands of more workers interviewed and educated as to their rights through the steady functioning of the Fair Food Program.  All the while, more than $12 million in Fair Food Premiums — the famous “penny per pound” — has passed through the Program to improve workers’ wages since February, 2011.

The results of these remarkable efforts have not only been encouraging, but in many respects astonishing.  Bad actors that had for years violated workers’ rights unchecked by oversight or enforcement have been identified and eliminated, banned from farms participating in the Program.  Bad practices have likewise been curtailed, replaced with new ways of managing farm labor that, for the first time, reflect workers’ concerns as well as the needs of production and profit.  As for forced labor, the issue that had repeatedly vexed the industry and threatened to stain its reputation irrevocably, the annual report notes:

Ten years ago, in the aftermath of several major federal prosecutions of Florida farm labor slavery operations, a Justice Department official labeled the industry “ground zero for modern slavery.”  Since that time, the CIW has worked closely with law enforcement to bring additional farm labor slavery operations to justice.  Remarkably, in three seasons under the FFP, there have been no cases of slavery uncovered at Participating Growers’ operations.  This absence of slavery cases has held despite the fact that the FFP has provided investigators significantly more access to workers – and workers significantly more access to information on their rights and to an effective complaint mechanism – than during the two decades preceding the FFP’s implementation that generated the “ground zero” label. 

The report also includes quotations from workers who expressed their feelings about the new program to auditors in conversations over the course of the two initial seasons of operations.  Their words reflect the profound changes taking place today in Florida:

cover red 2012 worker_1000“The raise produced by the bonus is good, but for me the most important thing is respect.”

“We see you everywhere…  Things are better since you are at the farms – you must keep coming back.” 

“Our dignity is being restored through this program.”

“More important than the money, which I need, was the feeling of dignity when my labor – the buckets I harvested – was recognized.”  (a worker speaking about receiving back pay that had been denied by the employer)

In another instance, an FFSC auditor rode on the bus with a crew on the way to the fields.  A worker sitting at the back of the bus made these statements during their conversation:  “I have been in the fields all my life. I have seen boys become men in the tomato fields. I have seen a great deal. And now I see that things are better. Now I see that we are not treated like dogs. I am grateful to people like you. You are welcome here.” 

The changes have not gone unnoticed:


  • In March 2013, the President’s Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships (above) singled out the Fair Food Program in a major new report as one of the “most successful and innovative programs” in the world today to uncover and prevent modern-day slavery

  • In May 2013, a delegation from the United Nations Working Group on Business and Human Rights toured the U.S. on a mission to “explore practices, challenges and lessons relating to efforts on implementing the UN Guiding Principles (‘GPs’) on business and human rights.”  The delegation visited with several Fair Food Program stakeholders as part of its broader investigation.  The UN Working Group left “impressed” with the Fair Food Program specifically, praising the FFP for “innovatively address[ing] core worker concerns” and “governance gaps relating to labour issues” through “market incentives for participating growers” and an “independent and robust enforcement mechanism.”  Indeed the delegation was so impressed that Fair Food Program representatives were invited to Geneva in December of last year to the UN’s annual Business and Human Rights Forum to present on their uniquely successful model.

In summary, in the space of a few short years since that “watershed moment” in 2010, the Florida tomato industry has undergone an unprecedented transformation, a metamorphosis that, in the words of Barry Estabrook in 2011, took it from being “one of the most repressive employers in the country… to being on the road to becoming the most progressive group in the fruit and vegetable industry.”  That road has now been travelled.  There has been, since 2010, nothing short of a quiet revolution in transparency and human rights in Florida agriculture.

Wages are beginning to rise, abuses are being addressed and eliminated, and turnover is down significantly on most farms. And in a particularly encouraging sign, this season was marked by the arrival in Florida of a major agricultural entity that has invested in the tomato industry, bringing thousands of new acres into production, creating thousands of new jobs, and, perhaps most importantly, demonstrating real confidence in the future of Florida tomatoes.

So that’s what’s been happening in Florida since 2010.  But what about Mexico?  What has taken place in the Mexican tomato industry over that same period?  What one can see — though through a glass, darkly, for sure, because transparency in Mexico is non-existent, news is scant and workers’ voices are silent — is anything but a transformation, unless perhaps, in the opposite direction.

Mexico since 2010…

Not nearly as much is known today about conditions for workers in Mexico’s tomato fields as is now known here in Florida. There is no CIW in Mexico, no Fair Food Standards Council, no effective national consumer movement, nothing like the elements that combined in Florida to confront the old farm labor system and replace it with today’s renaissance.  There is no Fair Food Program in Mexico because it would simply be too dangerous.  Violence and corruption are commonplace there, and in industries where significant money can be made, organized crime is never far away.

Despite the near total lack of transparency, however, some news does manage to escape, and from that news we pull here a few headlines:

Mexican authorities have rescued at least 275 people who were being held in slave-like conditions at a camp where tomatoes are sorted and packed for export, officials said.

Thirty-nine teenagers were among those being held against their will at the Bioparques de Occidente camp in Toliman, in the western state of Jalisco, regional prosecutor Salvador Gonzalez said late Tuesday.

Five foremen were arrested for “grave violations and crimes, including the illegal privation of liberty and human trafficking,” Gonzalez told AFP…  read more here


… But while a short list of landowners make millions, the planting, weeding, pruning and picking of the vegetables fall to armies of workers from Mexico’s poorest states — Oaxaca, Guerrero, Chiapas — who have little opportunity for schooling or other forms of legal employment.

So they are here in these fields, recruited by enganchadores — or “hooks” — who round them up in their home villages, and working in conditions that vary from producer to producer but that many critics say amount to indentured servitude.

Felipa Reyes, 40, from the violent state of Veracruz, has been toiling in the fields of Sinaloa for seven years. “You have to do the work they want, or you don’t earn anything,” she said. Complain? “And I’d end up with nothing.”…  read more here


… Americans eat more guacamole for the big game than on any other day of the year, and more of the avocados for the dip are grown in the green hills here than any other place in the world.

But for the past few years, a good chunk of the profits has gone to a violent criminal gang that made millions of dollars extorting avocado farmers and packinghouse operators while strong-arming groves from landowners, said residents and local officials who recently began fighting back.  read more here

Though that last headline was from the avocado industry, it is one of the few articles that goes into such fine detail on the impact of organized crime on the agricultural industry in Mexico and so is important for any discussion on the relative paths taken by the Florida and Mexican industries over the past several years.  In fact, we are embedding the video that accompanies the article here below to fully convey the struggles workers and growers face in that region today:


And lest you think that these conditions might be limited to avocados, here is just the very latest news of an agricultural industry overrun by narcotraffickers, from March 27th in

Mexican gangs learn that lime pays (also crime)


“I could just kill for a margarita right now,” you sigh, apparently ignorant of the fact that it is March, and the consumption of an iced beverage is nothing short of an act of insanity. It’s also probably the middle of the workday, so that in itself should be cause for concern in most circles.

You’re also probably unaware that someone may have actually killed – as in, committed murder – for the limes that go in your hypothetical margarita. Cartels are invading the Mexican citrus trade, hijacking trucks, and forcibly taking over farms to sell the now-valuable fruit.   read more here 

Clearly, while Florida tomato growers have been diligently working, side-by-side with farmworkers, to remedy a history of labor abuse and neglect that threatened to bring down the industry, their counterparts in Mexico are facing a far more existential threat that shows no signs of letting up.  And when you have to arm yourself just to keep your lands from being stolen from you by heavily armed adversaries, that leaves little time for things like investigating workers’ grievances, putting shade structures in the fields, or making sure the concerns of the workers’ Health and Safety Committee on the farm are being heard and addressed.  

So what is the takeaway?…

ciw_0.jpgThe business case for the Fair Food Program couldn’t be clearer.  Leaving aside whether or not it is the right thing to do to treat workers with dignity and respect, there can no longer be any doubt that it was the right business decision for the Florida tomato industry to join the Fair Food Program by signing with the CIW in 2010.

Before signing, the Florida tomato industry was facing spiraling labor problems on the farm, an ever-worsening image problem in the press, and a growing challenge in the marketplace from cheap Mexican tomatoes. 

Since signing, the Florida tomato industry has gotten its labor problems under control, won a well-earned public image as the produce industry with the highest, most rigorously monitored and enforced human rights standards in the nation, and created a product — a fairly grown tomato — with which its main challenger can’t even hope to compete.

Meanwhile, the Mexican agricultural industry sinks every day deeper into chaos.  

The Fair Food Program has helped the Florida tomato industry find its way out of a dead-end street and onto a path toward a sustainable future.  That the Program is good for workers has been proven by the concrete results from the first seasons of operation, results you can find in the FFSC’s report.  That it is good for business is now equally obvious.

Yet the US Chamber of Commerce and other special interests groups in Washington, DC, have nonetheless decided to disparage the CIW and the Fair Food Program, resorting to some remarkably underhanded tactics precisely because the facts do not offer any support for their claims.  Check back soon for Part Two of “Extreme Makeover: Florida Tomato Industry Edition” for more on those attacks.