Where Are You on the Food Chain?

Modern Slavery Museum puts spotlight on conditions of Florida’s farmworkers

August 16, 2010

People walking from a large truck with the words "Florida Workers Slavery Museum"

The traveling Florida Modern Slavery Museum parked at Nassau Presbyterian Church in Princeton. —All photos by Kim Schmidt.

PRINCETON, N.J.

Who would imagine that shoppers strolling past Nassau Presbyterian Church here on a summer Friday would find themselves face-to-face with modern-day slavery?

Yet on display July 30 in the church parking lot was a cargo box truck, a replica of one in which farmworkers were held against their will in 2008. The incident resulted in a slavery case: U.S. v. Navarrete.

The Florida Modern-Day Slavery Museum is a traveling exhibit that brings attention to the history and plight of migrant workers in Florida's fields. On tour in the Northeast in July and August, it was created by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), a community-based organization of Latino, Mayan Indian, and Haitian immigrants working in low-wage jobs in Florida, a state that supplies over 90 percent of the tomatoes consumed in the United States from October to May.

Noelle Damico, who works for the Presbyterian Hunger Program with the Campaign for Fair Food, accompanied the museum to the town where she spent three years as a student at Princeton Theological Seminary from 1988 to 1991. "We're here because most people don't know about the conditions under which the farmworkers live and work," she said. "They are Florida's poorest and least powerful workers.

Noelle Damico, while standing beside a man, points with her left hand.

Noelle Damico talks with a visitor to the museum.

"When people walk into the truck that workers were locked up in, they experience a small part of the workers' lives. They learn that although slavery was supposedly abolished by the 13th Amendment in 1865, in reality it still exists," Damico said. "The government defines slavery as using force, fraud, or coercion to keep people doing work. Forcing men to sleep in a padlocked truck in horrendous conditions and beating them to keep them in the fields qualifies, as was proven in the Navarrete case."

After raising awareness, Damico says the next step is getting people involved in sending postcards to executives of companies like Ahold (parent company of Stop & Shop, Giant, and Martin's) and writing letters to hand to managers of the grocery stores where they shop to urge support of fair wages and better conditions for the workers.

Damico is proud that the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) supported CIW's boycott of Taco Bell in 2001. That boycott began a campaign that led to agreements with MacDonald's, Burger King, Yum Brands (the parent of KFC, Pizza Hut, A&W and Long John Silver's in addition to Taco Bell), Subway, and, in 2008, Whole Foods, the leading natural and organic foods retailer in the supermarket industry, to work with CIW to directly improve wages and labor standards for farmworkers.

Slavery exhibit: boxes of tomato crates under a table, with smaller crates, a maroon pot and other items in front of a poster decorated with newspaper articles.

Tomato crates on display in the museum.

Now CIW, with support from churches and individuals, is turning its attention to the problem of involuntary servitude.

"It's the local church and the individual person of faith and their connections — that's how things get done," Damico said as she passed out postcards, took photos, ushered families into the museum truck, and stopped passers-by to hand them letters to give to their grocery store managers.

"This day in Princeton is an example. I saw Barbara Chaapel at General Assembly. She directs communications for Princeton Seminary and had published an article about CIW's work in the Seminary magazine in 2007," Damico said. "She connected me with Dave Davis, pastor of Nassau Presbyterian Church, who was also at the Assembly and agreed right away to host the museum on his church's property. Then the Seminary agreed to house our tour volunteer docents for three nights, and to let us park the museum truck in its parking lot."

Congregations have found creative ways to participate with the Campaign for Fair Food, Damico said, including holding prayer vigils in the tomato aisles of grocery stores.

College students like Kate Hadley of Brown University have joined the Student Farmworkers Alliance. Hadley is an intern with CIW this summer and is accompanying the museum tour. "It was great to be at Independence Mall in Philadelphia for three days, and raise awareness about the extreme conditions people endure in a land of freedom," she said.

A man sitting on the steps of the entrance to the Slavery Museum truck.

Farmworker and CIW member Romeo Ramirez sits on the steps of the replica cargo truck.

Hadley and other tour docents, some of them farmworkers from Imakolee — "This is a partnership, not something we do 'for' the farmworkers," said Damico — explained to visitors that the workers earn 40 to 45 cents for each 32-pound bucket of tomatoes they pick.

"They have to fill the bucket, lift, it, run to the truck and dump it, then someone throws them down a chit indicating 'one bucket,'" Hadley said. "To make $50 a day, you'd have to pick two tons of tomatoes." The numbers become real when visitors are invited to lift a 32-pound bucket of rice that is part of the exhibit.

Also accompanying the museum tour were Romeo Ramirez and Oscar Oztoy, both farmworkers and members of CIW (whose staff is made up almost entirely of those who work in the fields).

Ramirez won the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award in 2003 and has gone "underground" to break people out of slave rings in Florida.

"It's about all of us," Damico says. "All of us are eating this food. We're at one end of the supply chain, the workers are at the other."

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