Field of Nightmares: Florida's Migrant Slave Trade Exposed


There’s more to Gourmet than coverage of great summer tomato recipes. Recent posts detail a shocking account of modern-day slavery in the fields of the Sunshine State.

I heard about this through my cousin, Alexander Novak (son of famed columnist Robert) who described the piece as “disturbing.”

I have to agree and here is why: Governor Charlie Crist has failed to meet with any of the grassroots farm labor organizations such as the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) trying to end the well-documented abuses.

According to the coverage by writer Barry Estabrook, the abuses include “people being beaten, shackled in chains, locked in the back of box trucks without sanitary facilities, and robbed of their paychecks.”

Estabrooks tells us that in the past 12 years, police have prosecuted seven slave operations, including the most brutal of them all – the Navarrete family – sending two of its members to prison.

Uncovering the slavery has freed more than 1,000 men and women forced to do the exhausting picking for little or no money and under threat of death should they escape.

Estabrook’s criticism of the governor follows his in-depth article of the slave trade in the March issue of Gourmet Magazine, called Politics of the Plate: The Price of Tomatoes, in which the author warns us “If you have eaten a tomato this winter, chances are very good that it was picked by a person who lives in virtual slavery.” Disturbing, indeed!

Here is how he depicts one of the most egregious migrant communities located less than an hour’s drive from Naples, Florida, the nation’s second-wealthiest metropolitan area with houses that sell for an average of $1.4 million, shops like Tiffany’s and Saks Fifth Avenue and flawlessly manicured golf courses.

Rounding a long curve, you enter Immokalee. The heart of town is a nine-block grid of dusty, potholed streets lined by boarded-up bars and bodegas, peeling shacks, and sagging, mildew-streaked house trailers. Mongrel dogs snooze in the shade, scrawny chickens peck in yards. Just off the main drag, vultures squabble over roadkill. Immokalee’s population is 70 percent Latino. Per capita income is only $8,500 a year. One third of the families in this city of nearly 25,000 live below the poverty line. Over one third of the children drop out before graduating from high school. Immokalee is the tomato capital of the United States. Between December and May, as much as 90 percent of the fresh domestic tomatoes we eat come from south Florida, and Immokalee is home to one of the area’s largest communities of farmworkers. According to Douglas Molloy, the chief assistant U.S. attorney based in Fort Myers, Immokalee has another claim to fame: It is “ground zero for modern slavery”.

Apparently, the CIW has even convinced several fast-food chains to support its campaign to improve conditions for tomato workers and to insist upon a zero-tolerance for slavery in the fields. If the Governor fails to do his part, the organization vows to take its plight to the state capital in Tallahassee and re-enact the abuses – crimes that certainly taint our affection for the delicious fruit we toss into salads only thinking about their ripeness and flavor.

image: Scott Robertson

Luanne Bradley

Luanne Sanders Bradley is the West coast Editor at EcoSalon and currently resides in San Francisco, California.