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Politics of the Plate: Harvest of Hope

03.31.09
After 15 years of asking, a Florida farmworkers’ group has finally gotten the governor to condemn abusive practices in the state’s tomato fields.
tomato pickers

Actions may speak louder than words, but when they are the right ones, words can be extremely powerful.

And Florida Governor Charlie Crist said all the right ones in a letter he sent last week to the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, an advocacy group for farm laborers’ rights based in southern Florida.

For the last 15 years, the Coalition has been asking Florida governors to sit down and discuss ways to alleviate the dismal working conditions (including slavery) in Florida fields. Crist is the first to agree.

The Coalition had two key requests for the governor. First, that he come out firmly and condemn slavery in no uncertain words. This might not sound like a particularly extreme position, but last December, after the latest slavery case was successfully prosecuted, the only official word from Tallahassee came from a spokesman who seemed to say that a little slavery was okay (just not too much).

The second request was that the governor use his influence to convince the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange, a cooperative representing farmers in the state, to support the coalition’s Campaign for Fair Food. Part of that campaign is to have Exchange members give workers a one-penny-per-pound raise, paid for by a group of large corporate produce buyers that have already begun to shell out the extra cents. Citing legal reasons, the Exchange has refused, so the money sits in escrow.

In response to the first request, Crist minced no words: “I have no tolerance for slavery in any form,” he wrote. He was equally clear about his position on the penny-a-pound deal: “I support the Coalition’s Campaign for Fair Food . . . . and I encourage the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange and its members to participate in the campaign so that these monies can reach and provide assistance to the workers.”

Crist signed off by saying, “I look forward to working with you and your organization in the future to advance these important causes.” Having spent time in Florida’s tomato fields and farmworkers’ communities, I can assure the governor that he’ll find there’s still plenty of work to do.

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