Guest commentary: Half-century old TV clip remains a snapshot of today from farm fields

In 1960, one day after Thanksgiving, a devastating documentary by legendary CBS reporter Edward R. Murrow awoke America to an invisible class of Floridians. “Harvest of Shame” exposed the cruel hardships confronting the hard-working men and women who harvest our nation’s food.

Yet scenes of laborers feverishly picking under a brutal sun, harvesting and hauling two full tons of tomatoes just to make $50, is not a half-century-old clip from a TV documentary. It is still the reality today, in our own backyard.

Workers in the fields down Immokalee Road, or living in camps off Old Road 41 in Bonita Springs and near the entry to Marco Island, indeed know it all too well.

Worse, many recall the horrifying slavery operation, prosecuted in 1999, situated just down the road from Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary. Some two-dozen tomato pickers had been held in trailers, kept as captives under constant watch. Since then, five additional criminal servitude operations have surfaced on Florida farms; two of these involve forced labor in Collier County tomato fields.

None of God’s children deserve to be beaten, chained or refused water while working so that we can have cheap tomatoes at our nearest grocer. It is time for us all to see and respect this invisible class of human beings — farmworkers — created and loved by God.

Neapolitans volunteering in Immokalee or similar communities can surely attest: the majority of farmworkers there are not poor on account of mismanaged wealth or for a lack of hard labor and physical sacrifice.

Farmworkers are poor because they are paid a low wage. Despite benevolent and virtuous intent, no amount of donated food or clothing will ultimately undo structural poverty. Only justice and mercy can do that.

In the Bible in Micah we read, “O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

In Ecclesiastes, we are told that “for everything there is a season and a time for every matter under heaven.” Well, at last, thanks to widespread efforts at doing justice, farmworkers may soon begin to enjoy the basic rights and protections they so clearly deserve.

In September, U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis declared “a huge victory” alongside the Coalition of Immokalee Workers at an announcement in Washington of the farmworkers’ new accord with Compass Group, the nation’s largest corporate food-service provider. Compass Group manages more than 10,000 accounts across the United States — including at schools, hospitals, corporate offices and cultural centers — claiming $9 billion in revenues last year.

The landmark agreement contains a stringent code of conduct for Compass Group’s tomato suppliers in advancement of farmworkers’ human rights. It also provides a long-overdue pay increase for tomato pickers.

Compass Group joins McDonald’s, Burger King, Subway, Whole Foods Market and Yum Brands in harnessing its purchasing power to improve labor standards for farmworkers.

Despite resistance by leaders of Florida’s tomato industry, three growers — Alderman Farms, Lady Moon Farms and East Coast Growers — have agreed this coming season to pass along to harvesters an extra penny-per-pound pledged by these companies.

But while U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont has fittingly described the commitment of these growers as “the beginning of the end of the ‘Harvest of Shame,’” one must wonder why Publix has declined to take part in the opportunity.

Simply put, Publix — Florida’s largest privately held company — has two options. It can support social responsibility and take advantage of its buying power to make a positive difference in the lives of farmworkers, as so many retail industry leaders already have, or it can continue to ignore farmworkers’ plight, quietly profiting from Florida’s persistent harvest of shame.

Until its corporate position changes, we prayerfully hope company officials will one day very soon choose the former. In so doing, Publix can make good on its reputation of responsiveness to consumers and its promise to provide a place where shopping is intentionally made more pleasing.

Hendershot is a pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America and is currently called to Christus Victor Lutheran Church, North Naples. She graduated from the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago with a master of divinity and an emphasis in science and religion.

© 2009 All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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