Modern Day Slavery in Agriculture: Another Good Reason to Buy Local

Florida farm workers tell their stories as part of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers’ anti-slavery media campaign.
By Milagros Gustafson Hernandez

In 1993, in Immokalee, Florida a group of Latino, Mayan, and Haitian workers began meeting regularly to discuss changes in their community. They organized and named themselves the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (“CIW”). Fighting for fairer wages, and succeeding, they moved on to help the federal government in the fight against involuntary servitude through worker-led investigations. In the last 10 years they have helped in the prosecution of 7 cases in Florida alone (with two pending) –exposing the horrendous farm-worker abuses. Here are some examples:

  • U.S. vs. Flores — In 1997, Miguel Flores and Sebastian Gomez were sentenced to 15 years each in federal prison on slavery, extortion, and firearms charges, amongst others. Flores and Gomez had a workforce of over 400 men and women in Florida and South Carolina, harvesting vegetables and citrus.

  • U.S. vs. Cuello — In 1999, Abel Cuello was sentenced to 33 months in federal prison on slavery charges. He had held more than 30 tomato pickers in two trailers in the isolated swampland west of Immokalee, keeping them under constant watch. Three workers escaped the camp, only to have their boss track them down a few weeks later. The employer ran one of them down with his car, stating that he owned them. The workers sought help from the CIW and the police, and the CIW worked with the DOJ on the ensuing investigation. Cuello worked for Manley Farms North Inc., a major Bonita Springs tomato supplier. Once out of prison, Cuello supplied labor to Ag-Mart Farms, a tomato company operating in Florida and North Carolina.
  • U.S. vs. Tecum — In 2001, Jose Tecum was sentenced to 9 years in federal prison on slavery and kidnapping charges.

  • U.S. vs. Lee — In 2001, Michael Lee was sentenced to 4 years in federal prison and 3 years supervised release on a slavery conspiracy charge. He pled guilty to using crack cocaine, threats, and violence to enslave his workers.

  • U.S. vs. Ramos — In 2004, Ramiro and Juan Ramos were sentenced to 15 years.

  • U.S. vs. Ronald Evans — In 2007, Florida employer Ron Evans was sentenced to 30 years in federal prison.

  • U.S. vs. Navarrete — In December 2008, employers Cesar and Geovanni Navarrete were sentenced to 12 years each in federal prison.

  • U.S. vs. Bontemps — In July 2010, Cabioch Bontemps, Carline Ceneus, and Willy Edouard were indicted by a federal grand jury on charges of conspiracy to commit forced labor.

  • U.S. vs. Global Horizons — In September 2010, staff of guestworker recruiting giant Global Horizons were charged with operating a forced labor ring active in 13 states, including Florida. Global Horizons President Mordechai Orian and six others are accused of holding hundreds of guestworkers from Thailand against their will, in what prosecutors call “the largest human trafficking case in U.S. history.” FBI Special Agent Tom Simon described the latest case as “a classic bait-and-switch what they were doing. They were telling the Thai workers one thing to lure them here. Then when they got here, their passports were taken away and they were held in forced servitude working in these farms.” The prosecution is ongoing, with more details to emerge about the various states workers lived in and what crops they picked.
 Now, I take you back to 1961. In a small town in Puerto Rico, someone dear to me (who would like to remain anonymous) was recruited by a large U.S. corporation to do farm work in the U.S. We will call him Jose. I interviewed Jose in July of 2011 for my final project in Groundswell’s Summer Practicum in Sustainable Farming and Local Food Systems.
Jose was 19 at the time and was very interested in working in the US. He heard that the company would pay for the flight to the U.S. and would pay for room and board as well. The company spread word throughout his town of the date they would start the recruiting process. When the day came, the company set up a tent and Jose got on line with many other young men hoping to be chosen for what they thought would be a wonderful opportunity in the U.S. The recruiters would choose the men on the basis of whether they had calluses on their hands or not.

Jose did. He was passed on to the next corporate representative who had him sign a 6 month contract and handed him flight tickets to NYC. Stipulated in the contract was the salary of .90 per hour and that expenses for the flight, plus room and board, would be paid back through weekly payroll deductions. The day of departure came and they landed in New York’s Kennedy Airport and driven, by bus, to Delaware. There they entered a building where there were hundreds of other men. Outside of the building were security guards armed with rifles. 

The building had hundreds of cots lined up and a large shower room where the men would bathe in groups. Local farmers would come to the facility and pick anywhere from 40-50 men, to work as laborers on their farm. Jose was chosen after two days. On the farm the menu consisted of turkey soup, turkey soup and then some more turkey soup. They worked 12-13 hour shifts, ate, showered then went to sleep.

After 6 weeks of the never broken routine, Jose and another laborer decided they had had enough and planned their escape. Having monitored the security guard’s breaks throughout the day, they faked illness one morning and while one stayed behind to pack his belongings, the other dug a hole under the fence.

Around 8pm that evening the two escaped. They headed towards train tracks that had been visible from the farm. They walked on the tracks until they reached a station, 3-4 hours later, where they purchased tickets to NYC. 

I interviewed Jose in July of 2011. He told me there was no physical abuse that he was aware of, at that time. It’s astounding, that in 50 years not much of a change has taken place. If anything, it seems worse. Visit your local farms to see the conditions first hand.