The Modern Day Slavery Museum, a mobile exhibition that's been organized by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers [CIW], rolled into Charlottesville, yesterday. Its mission is to educate the public about the brutal conditions that farmworkers in Florida endure and to encourage the people to do something about it.
"Slavery" probably sounds like an overstatement, but it's accurate. Farmworkers are too often held against their will by threats and violence. Since 1997, the federal government has prosecuted seven farm labor servitude cases in Florida, which led to the freeing of over 1,000 workers. Slavery is the extreme, but, as Senator Bernie Sanders has said, poverty and powerlessness mean that "the norm is disaster."
The museum has been traveling the country. Here's a video about, from the Naples (Florida) Daily News, about an earlier stop on the tour.
What can be done? The CIW has played an major role in investigating abuses in Florida, which one federal official has called "ground zero for modern slavery." Six of the seven federal prosecutions, since 1997, have relied partly on evidence that the CIW uncovered. In addition, the Coalition is asking people to insist that restaurants and grocery stores pay attention to the conditions on the farms that grow the food that they purchase. This "Fair Food" campaign has persuaded Taco Bell, McDonald's, Burger King, Whole Foods, and Subway to do business only agricultural suppliers that respect workers' rights.
This is terrific news, but it's only a start. What's needed is for all the players in the food industry to sign on. For instance, Kroger and Giant, the two largest supermarket chains in this area, have yet to accept any responsibility for the wages and working conditions of the people who grow the food that they sell. Anyone can help by sending letters to Kroger or Giant, asking them to take measures that would ensure fair wages and dignity for the farmworkers. You can find examples of the Kroger letter, here, and the Giant letter, here.The museum, as you might expect, takes a historical look at the problem. The kind of abuses that exist today stretch far back into time -- to nineteenth-century slavery, of course, but also to Depression-era farm labor. At the exhibit, I was struck by the way that you can see evidence of the poverty and powerlessness that the CIW talks about in photos made by Farm Security Administration [FSA] photographers, in the 1930s.
Arthur Rothstein: Picking beans. Belle Glade, Florida. 1937. (Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Collection, Library of Congress. Click directly on either of the photos to see larger versions.)
I admire the FSA photographers and have written quite a bit about them. They were important both for the power and beauty of the photos that they made and for the impact that they had on public opinion. It's sad to say, however, that the conditions under which farm workers labor haven't changed nearly enough.
Take a look, for instance, at this important set of photos by Shiho Fukada. The similarity to FSA photographs from over 70 years ago stops me in my tracks. And reminds me to send those letters to Kroger and Giant.
Marion Post Wolcott: Vegetable workers, migrants, waiting after work to be paid. Near Homestead, Florida. 1939.