Fair Food Program is helping to end slavery in U.S. tomato fields

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You access the main exhibit of the museum by climbing a flight of steps. There’s a framed sign, reading “Enter,” and a velvet rope. An arrow points the way to go.

But this isn’t a regular museum. It is hot and stuffy, claustrophobic and uncomfortable and unsettling. Heavy chains adorn the wall.

There’s an explanation for our harsh surroundings. The Florida Modern-Day Slavery Museum, you see, is housed mainly in the back of a panel truck. I stand with six other rabbis by my side, part of a delegation sponsored by T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights. By week’s end, we’ll have prayed inside a Wendy’s burger joint, singing songs of praise and liberation, picketing the real estate in front of the store.

But, at this moment, all of us find ourselves packed in the back of that truck.

It is outfitted to replicate the conditions experienced by workers hired by two brothers who had employed dozens of tomato pickers in Florida and South Carolina, in what Doug Molloy, retired assistant U.S. attorney, called “slavery, plain and simple.”

Workers were imprisoned in a truck just like this, bound to the walls with heavy chains like the ones we stare at, wordlessly. The workers slept on the floors, if they slept at all. They relieved themselves in a corner.

All so the tomatoes in the fields of South Florida could be harvested, our guide explains, sold to retail customers like Taco Bell, McDonald’s, Walmart  and — yes — Wendy’s. Tens of thousands of men and women pick those tomatoes, mostly by hand, making tomatoes the second-biggest crop in Florida.

And on this late spring morning, seven rabbis stand in a swampy truck, our sweat cut by tears.

Lest you think this is only a story of sadness and outrage, I’m happy to report that this tale of slavery ends in redemption. One of the workers enslaved in the back of that fetid truck found a weak spot in the roof and schemed to steal back his humanity. He waited. He escaped.

But it’s what he did next, where he went next, that’s truly inspirational. It’s the reason we’re all here. He ran through the inky Florida night to a modest one-story building in the tiny town of Immokalee. There, he found the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), a community-based organization of low-wage agricultural laborers.

Tracing its origins to a 1993 meeting in the back of a church, the CIW has been fighting wage theft and slavery for more than 20 years. Before the CIW began its work, tomato pickers were routinely forced to work without a time clock, exposed to deadly pesticides, denied basic rights like water, shade, rest, bathroom breaks. Each 32-pound bucket harvested was rewarded with a token — good, at the end of the day, for just 50 cents. They faced verbal, physical and sometimes sexual abuse. Those who complained were fired, or threatened, or worse.

Through work stoppages and intense public pressure, including hunger strikes and boycotts, the CIW won some small gains. But the watershed moment was still to come. In 2010, a landmark agreement with the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange extended the CIW’s principles — including a strict code of conduct, an abuse hotline and a complaint resolution system — to more than 90 percent of the Florida tomato industry.

McDonald’s. Taco Bell. Chipotle. Trader Joe’s. Even, as of a few months ago, Walmart. All have joined the Fair Food Program, requiring that their suppliers comply with the CIW basic standards of fairness and decency.

But not Wendy’s, which has 6,600 restaurants around the world, none of them covered by the Fair Food agreement. Which leads seven rabbis, tallitot on our backs, to disrupt the dinner hour at a Fort Myers Wendy’s. Because the books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy demand that workers be treated fairly. Because our grandparents, too, were exploited immigrant workers. Because we’ve seen too much to keep silent.

I sat in shul on the second day of Shavuot, and we read the Book of Ruth. It’s a book known for its passionate depiction of Ruth’s loyalty, for its explication of the lineage of King David.

But it’s also the story of a scrupulous landowner. Boaz, the redeemer, is also Boaz, the righteous employer. “I have ordered the men not to molest you,” he says, comforting Ruth. “And when you are thirsty, go to the jars and drink … may you have your full wage from HaShem” (Ruth 2:9-12).

The Book of Ruth is not a display in a museum. We read it every year, on a festival celebrating the giving of our most precious heritage. Boaz extended human kindness and fairness to those who worked his fields.

If Boaz could manage that, is it too much to ask of Wendy?

Rabbi Mike Rothbaum
is the rabbi/educator at Beth Chaim Congregation in Danville.