Indentured Servitude Persists In Florida's Fields

Slavery was abolished in the U.S. in 1865, but the specter of slavery persists today for the tomato and citrus pickers working in Florida's fields. Reporter Amy Bennett Williams joins Neal Conan in Fort Myers, Fla. to discuss indentured servitude, human trafficking, and how prosecutors are fighting it.

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REBECCA ROBERTS, host:

TALK OF THE NATION host, Neal Conan, is in Southwest Florida this week, hanging out at member station WGCU in Fort Myers. He joins us from there today with a story on a subject we like to think has been relegated to history, slavery.

NEAL CONAN, host:

Thanks very much, Rebecca. We've all become accustomed to produce that is available year round. In the winter months, 90 percent of the tomatoes in your supermarket or on your hamburger come from Florida. And that business is ground zero for modern day slavery. Some tomato pickers here work seven days a week in debt bondage to their employers.

Amy Bennett Williams is a senior writer for the Fort Myers News Press. She's been breaking stories on this issue for years now and she joins us here in the studios of WGCU in Fort Myers.

Thanks very much for coming in.

Ms. AMY BENNETT WILLIAMS: Oh, thanks for asking me.

CONAN: And if have questions about how this works, what's being done about it, and we'd especially like to hear from those of you who live with this outrage here in Florida, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site, that's at npr.org click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And, Amy, when we say slavery, the image that comes to most of our minds is, you know Antebellum cotton plantations. Is this the same kind of thing?

MS. WILLIAMS: Not entirely. They're not cotton plantations. They are sometimes citrus groves or tomato fields. The most recent high profile case was of a group of 12 or so men who were taken by their captors to harvest tomatoes in the fields of South Florida. What it does have in common with the Antebellum pictures is that, certainly, a lot of these cases involve debt bondage. But this particular case involved all of the mechanisms of restraint and abuse that we associate with pre-Civil War slavery (unintelligible).

CONAN: Chains, that sort of thing?

MS. WILLIAMS: Yeah. Chains, they were shackled to posts. They were beaten. They were locked up at night in quarters, essentially U-haul trucks with no bathrooms, so they had to use the corners. Sometimes, their captors made them fight each other - all of - and certainly this, coupled with an insurmountable debt. The way that they escaped, finally, was one man noticed that the truck had a little piece of rust and he could see some light through it. So he punched his way out, squeezed out and made his way to safety.

CONAN: And were the employers arrested?

MS. WILLIAMS: Yes, they certainly were. And they were prosecuted in federal court here. They were sentenced less than a year ago in December. And they are all facing pretty significant jail terms. Of course, there's no parole when it's a federal case, so they're gone. And the assistant U.S. attorney who prosecuted them told me, just this morning, that he has another 10 investigations he's working on.

CONAN: That's the man named Doug Molloy. And when we said this is ground zero for slavery type cases, that's a quote from him.

MS. WILLIAMS: Yes. Yes.

CONAN: And when you say they were captured, where? Are these people from Central America?

MS. WILLIAMS: They're from - mostly, they're from Mexico and Central America, although, there are many slavery cases that involve U.S. citizens as well. It really runs the spectrum. The common character, though, is power and abuse. And the people who hold these people captives have some way of maintaining their power over them whether it's with debt bondage or ropes or drugs and alcohol. They - it's the balance of power.

CONAN: And they're smuggled into the country the same way illegal immigrants are smuggled into the country, across the border?

Ms. WILLIAMS: Not necessarily. Yes - in some cases, yes. But in others, for example, people will go under bridges and to bus stations and recruit homeless people.

CONAN: So people who could be Americans, too?

Ms. WILLIAMS: Vulnerable - yes. Certainly - as I said, a couple of these cases had involved American-born citizens. But what they are is vulnerable in one way or another.

CONAN: And how - we think of - obviously, the tomato growing, and the tomato picking industries are quite big here in the state of Florida. How much a part of it is this?

Ms. WILLIAMS: I - no one knows. There are no statistics. I heard an estimate today that perhaps five percent of the labor force is held in some kind of slavery conditions. But slaves don't report, themselves, and for every case that is prosecuted, it's more than likely, Doug Molloy estimates, that there are other cases that will never see the light of day.

CONAN: We're going to get some callers in on the conversation. Our phone number is 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. Our guest is Amy Bennett Williams. She's a senior writer for the News Press. And we'll go first to Mike(ph). Mike calling us from Tulsa.

MIKE (Caller): Hello?

CONAN: Hi, Mike. You're on the air. Go ahead, please.

MIKE: Yeah. My point is that the American consumer doesn't really understand how our fruits and vegetables are produced. And that, you know, the growers and producers love to use these types of methods and use illegal aliens. And that if the American consumers understood that, then they would also understand that if these people were paid fair and livable wages that then a salad would cost probably twice as much as a steak.

CONAN: Does he have a point there?

Ms. WILLIAMS: I think though, that Americans - consumers have shown that they're willing to pay more for food that is harvested fairly and for food whose producers and the workers that pick it and deal with it are treated humanely the way�

CONAN: The last time we heard about the tomato pickers was, indeed, there was a work stoppage, it was a year and a half ago or so. And they - the associations, the places that buy it, McDonald's for example, agreed to pay a higher price.

Ms. WILLIAMS: All of the major fast food companies in the world have agreed to pay the higher price and Whole Foods has agreed to pay the higher price. Some big food service companies, you know, that supply cafeterias and nursing homes, have agreed to pay the higher price. So I don't know, necessarily, that there's this huge resistance to one penny more per pound.

There is a group based in - right in the center of tomato company -country called the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and they're proposing a market-base solution for this problem.

CONAN: Okay, Mike, thanks very much for the phone call. But I also wanted to go to this other point in that while, you know, conditions in a lot of these places are not good - you cover agribusiness - and, indeed, there are a lot of the illegal aliens who work in the picking crops in this country and, particularly, picking citrus and picking tomatoes.

Ms. WILLIAMS: Yes. And that's one of the things that make them vulnerable to exploitation. They are afraid that they would be deported, and that the hopes and dreams they've come over here to fulfill will be dashed and then they'll be sent back. And so, yes. Because - one of the reasons that this can be is that agricultural work is really difficult if you're on the, you know, the hands-on part of it.

You know, if you ask someone who is a tomato picker, they'll tell you it's the worst job in the world. It's blazingly hot. You're going as fast as you can. You're doing heavy lifting. What's more, you enjoyed none of the labor rights that most of us take for granted�

CONAN: Sure.

Ms. WILLIAMS: ...the overtime and comp and�

CONAN: You're paid by the pound.

Ms. WILLIAMS: Exactly. And so, the job flow in the tomato job market is out, no one leaves a position to become a tomato picker.

CONAN: And this industry, it's all handwork? I mean, oranges, they've learn how to harvest by machines.

Ms. WILLIAMS: There's mechanization in the citrus industry, although there is still some handwork done. But tomato picking has to be - cause tomatoes are very delicate fruits and the plants are delicate, tender plants. They don't have woody stems. So everything has to be done by hand. They have to staked and tied and picked carefully by hand.

CONAN: Well, you mentioned Doug Malloy. What is being done about this situation? He said - he mentioned to you today 10 other cases. It sounds like there's a lot of this going on.

Ms. WILLIAMS: Well, there is. And one of the things that Doug Malloy and there a number of other human rights groups have done in different corner of the world is work to raise awareness. That's one of the first things, when you ask someone who is anti-slavery activist - what can be done? Because - riles people up.

CONAN: And just - it just boggles the mind. Anti - you know, abolitionists, there are abolitionists working�

Ms. WILLIAMS: They - in fact, they call themselves modern-day abolitionists. There the new abolitionists. And a lot of this is sort of intuitive if you know what to look for, people who are housed in crowded conditions often with plywood over the windows or bars. There's someone hanging around in front of the house who might be a guard, people who are not allowed to speak to others. And Malloy told me today that some of his most reliable reporters are people like school nurses, you know, someone who sits next to them in church, someone who sees someone at the grocery store, being led around by someone else. And so, there's awareness.

And then there is the market-base idea that the Coalition of Immokalee Workers is forwarding, and that is that if you get more money to the labor force that the conditions will become normalized, that tomato picking can become a job like a - you know, working at 7-Eleven or the Burger King.

CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line. This is Mike(ph). Mike calling us from Charlottesville in Virginia.

MIKE: Hi. How y'all doing?

CONAN: Very well, thanks.

Ms. WILLIAMS: Thanks.

MIKE: My main issue is that the real shame in this is, is that it's been going on for a long, long time. I grew up in Florida. And even back in the '80s - I mean, when I was in school, we'd have a huge population explosion in the school when the migrant workers came to town to pick the strawberries and the tomatoes. And I mean, you know, 15 kids getting on the bus at one stop, you know? And, you know, the trailers, they have a small mobile home with, you know, 20 or 30 people living in one small - very small trailer, and this was happening all over the place. The workers�

CONAN: Some of us remember even further back than that, if you've watched "Harvest of Shame," the great documentary by Edward R. Murrow.

Ms. WILLIAMS: And at the time, most of the people in that documentary were African-American. They were the people who were vulnerable. They were the people at the bottom of the food chain. And, of course, now that's changed. But he's right about Florida agribusiness, historically, leaning on people in desperate conditions.

CONAN: And is it just peculiar to Florida? There are migrant workers who pick crops in a lot of other states.

Ms. WILLIAMS: No, it's not.

MIKE: A lot of the workers�

Ms. WILLIAMS: I think, though, that the heightened awareness is -certainly Florida has that to its credit.

CONAN: And I wonder - Mike, are you still there?

MIKE: Yes.

CONAN: Did anybody do anything about it back in the '80s when you were growing up here?

MIKE: No. They had such a high social - I mean, a low social status. I mean, most people were relieved that they weren't taking other - so many of them. But other than that, there wasn't anything done about it, you know? Except they, you know, were - there were some acts of violence and things, but nothing positive.

CONAN: Mike, thanks very much for the phone call. We're talking with Amy Bennett Williams of the News-Press here at the studios of WGCU in Fort Myers, Florida.

And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And, Amy, this is something that - well, it seems to be on the scale, concentrated in the tomato-picking and the citrus industries, but there's another aspect to human slavery that goes on here that we tend to call human trafficking. Tell us about a girl named Esperanza?

Ms. WILLIAMS: Esperanza came here from a highland village in Guatemala and, within a few years, was front-page news here because it - she was taken to a hospital where she was pregnant, bleeding. And little by little, her story came out and it - the case was also successfully prosecuted. And her captors are now in jail. But essentially, she was sold to a man who brought her here.

CONAN: For about $260?

Ms. WILLIAMS: Yeah. Yeah. And he kept her in his house, just a regular suburban house, where he lived with other members of his family and she was a domestic and sexual slave. And she only came to light because an alert neighbor saw this little - I say little girl, she was a 13-year-old kid. She'd never seen her before. She was crying, bleeding, obviously needed help. And this neighbor knew something was wrong. And she pursued it and�

CONAN: This was a couple or three years ago, you wrote about this�

Ms. WILLIAMS: I did.

CONAN: �in your paper.

Ms. WILLIAMS: Yeah.

CONAN: And one of the things that is just chilling is the number of cracks that this investigation fell through.

Ms. WILLIAMS: There - yes. And I have to say, to the credit of the agencies here, it was a sharp slap and her real wake-up call. Her - some of her restraining order paperwork got lost at the clerk of court's office. Our Department of Children and Families let the case go. There were just all sorts of gaps and holes. And with the result that, you know, she live like this for several years that she didn't have to live like this.

CONAN: There are other cases like this, sadly, as well, maybe not as many as are in the tomato fields, but there are other - particularly young women who find themselves in these awful straits.

Ms. WILLIAMS: And not just sexual servitude, but we have cases of domestic servants who are brought here by wealthy people. These, too, have been successfully prosecuted. Someone will offer a young girl, hey, you know, come to the states. Live in Naples with me. You'll be able to go to school, learn English. It'll be great. And they wind up living in a back bedroom eating scraps.

CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line. Joe(ph) is with us, calling from Tampa.

JOE (Caller): Hey, yeah. Well, the common thing I see here in central Florida, in the blueberry and strawberry fields, is (unintelligible). The farmer actually hires a broker. And he's an older Mexican gentleman (unintelligible) you can tell he has authority. And he hires all these Guatemalans, Hondurans and Mexicans and they get paid, every bucket of fruit or blueberries they pick - they get a little chit and they turn that in at the end of the day, and that's how they get paid.

So the farmer is actually dealing with one broker. And these guys - I'm sure they don't get paid workman's comp, they don't get any kind of benefits or anything. And the farmers are decent to the people that work for him, but it's just kind of scary how - have this broker is in charge of all these people, gathering them up, going to farm after farm. It seems like there's a good way of abuse can happen.

CONAN: Is that accurate, Amy?

Ms. WILLIAMS: Yeah. Well, the technical term for this broker guys is labor contractors. And some growers are moving away from using them. But that is - that allows them a gap between the people who are working their fields and harvesting their fruit. They're not directly employed by the grower.

CONAN: So it gives them deniability.

Ms. WILLIAMS: Exactly.

CONAN: So when you hear statements from the tomato growers association of Florida, for example, they say, these are isolated cases. We have nothing to do with it. And we oppose this whenever it happens.

Ms. WILLIAMS: Well - and that is exactly what they said about the first case that we talked about. They were just brought to the fields by this family. They weren't our employees. We didn't enslave them.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call. And let's see if we can get one more caller in. This is Julian(ph). Julian calling us from Anchorage.

JULIAN (Caller): Yeah, hi.

CONAN: Hi.

JULIAN: Yeah. Hi. I'm a physician and I actually worked in a clinic in the San Joaquin Valley in California back in 1978. And we actually had cases where you had this kind of slavery going on in the local fields. And in one specific case, it was strawberry growers. And the grower, although he had hired a labor contractor, knew that these people were being held under slavery conditions.

(Soundbite of music)

JULIAN: They would put them in a very small house, 15, 16, 20-of them. They would give them the food. And then at the end of the month, they would charge them for the food. Of course they'd need water, et cetera, and they would end up with no wages. They were kept from going off the area by armed people.

CONAN: And, Julian, I - this is fascinating and I hate to cut you off�

JULIAN: Sure.

CONAN: �but I'm afraid we're out of time, but thank you so much for the phone call.

JULIAN: Okay.

CONAN: And we have to thank Amy Bennett Williams, a senior writer at the Fort Myers News-Press, good enough to join us here at WGCU. This radio station is working on a two-week long series on this issue, as well as on human trafficking and migrant living that will air in January.

We'd also like to thank Amy Tardif and the wonderful staff of WGCU for hosting me and our producer; that is Barry Hardiman(ph) this week.

And, Rebecca, thanks so much for filling in.

ROBERTS: Anytime, Neal. Thank you.

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