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SR (Sanjay Rawal): First of all Mai thank you very much for your interest, I think this is a great series that you guys are doing with the magazine. "Slavery" is a very loaded word, I want to differentiate between chattel slavery and the term ‘modern day slavery’. Modern day slavery describes debt bondage, situations where employers threaten employees with physical abuse or violence or death...a situation where a worker has so much fear that he or she does not speak out to authority, if in fact, they know how to get to authorities. Sometimes the bondage is not just psychological it’s actually physical. In one case that we explore in the film a labor contractor held a number of men in the back of a U-HAUL truck, some of them chained to poles at night. Driven in fields during the day. And so, yes, there are conditions that seem metaphorically close to slavery. But there's a line beyond which that exploitation kind of, you know, just nefariously earns the moniker of modern day slavery.
MS: Could you talk a little bit about how your background in agricultural genetics influenced your attraction to this project, and how you became involved with Food Chains?
SR: My dad is a pretty well-known tomato breeder in California. I spent summers on farms in the central valley with him. I got my degree in Molecular Biology with an emphasis on genetics. My Dad and I started our own little tomato genetics company together. At the same time I was doing a lot of human rights work overseas on a number of topics from education to healthcare, to the rights of small farmers, mainly in Africa. That said, I was always peripherally involved in the tomato industry. A couple of years back, I was at a tomato conference in Florida of all places and got a first-hand introduction into how horrific life was for tomato pickers there. You know, in California things are very bad, but Florida is its own den of abuse. In the early-mid 2000s, a number of slavery cases were discovered and in the late 2000s they were actually prosecuted. Probably [affecting] more than 1,200 people in Central and Southern Florida alone from debt bondage. And a number of those modern day slaves were U.S. citizens, born and raised in the U.S. Some of them were veterans from the first Iraq war. I began to see that the idea of exploitation being tied to immigration was not entirely accurate.
RS: Yes, it is definitely something that keeps them from complaining to authorities about exploitation or abuse, but we saw that the worse cases of exploitation didn't discriminate based on legal status. I began doing more research. I was disheartened, because despite being associated with the agricultural industry professionally for 15 years, I had never realized that at the base of the supply chain, this type of exploitation existed. And I figured that if I didn't know about this, probably a lot of my friends didn't and that thus began production on Food Chains.
MS: Coming from a legal perspective, what kind of legislation exists to protect these people? Especially those who are citizens and why is it not being enforced?
RS: Farm workers from 1938 onward were excluded from the National Labor Standards Act which afforded every single worker in the U.S. the right to overtime pay and the right to other work place protection. Farm workers as well as domestic workers were excluded in order to secure the support of the Southern Democrats who were afraid that they would lose control over their African-American workforce. That Act has been updated on a federal level, every 15 or 20 years, but farm workers in the U.S. still don't have rights to overtime pay. There obviously is legislation that prohibits slavery in the U.S., you know, the 13 Amendment. There are other things that ascribe serious civil or criminal penalties to rape or sexual harassment, but the problem for farm workers lies in the lack of enforcement. Farm workers don't work in an enclosed environment like an office building. And the majority of farm workers move geographically from harvest region to harvest region, depending on the time or year and the crop. And states like Florida only have--I believe now Florida has only 14 labor inspectors to police over 40,000 farms. So the idea of these laws doesn't serve as a practical deterrent to people who run farms. If you're never gonna get caught--never gonna get caught, the incentive to follow the law gradually erodes.
MS: Could you talk a little more about how the relationships between farmers, labor contractors and farm workers create the environment for exploitation? And solutions the film explores.
RS: There are farms that are very well wrought. And a number of good people in the farming industry. But we found in the states that had the least legal enforcement, the worst eggs so to speak--the most kind of salacious characters are allowed to manage their workforces with impunity. In many states labor contractors serve as middlemen between farms and working crews and there's a practical reason for that: farmers don't want to go and recruit temporary employees for a 2-3 week long harvest period when they [can] rely on a labor contractor. That said, labor contractors that are found to have violated the law have very little to lose. They have little property on their own. Farmers have a lot more to lose. Like if a farmer had an agricultural employee, let's say a secretary or a manager who reported a violation, the farm itself could be sued. In this case, when the people being abused and doing work aren't your employees, they can't sue up the supply chain, which is why we focused on the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW). They figured out that existing U.S. law and the way it's been applied by the Court System has, for the most part, never resulted in any punishment for the people up the supply chain who in a sense create the economic conditions for abuse at the base.
If the farmer is required to go a labor contractor because they can't afford the human resources staff to actually legally recruit workers themselves, that's a supply chain issue. There's nothing in U.S. law that requires a buyer of agricultural goods to pay a certain premium to allow the labor at the bottom to be sustainable and well paid--well paid meaning more than minimum wage. The economic pressure on farmers is so horrendous that there's very little they can actually do, so the CIW found that by going to the top of the supply chain and creating binding contracts with these buyers, requiring them to make sure that human rights conditions and wage benefits were enforced throughout the supply chain… The CIW's insistence on that has been very important for farm workers worldwide. Farm workers at least in Florida in the tomato industry, are now being paid close to a living wage and the area of the U.S. once known as the ground zero for modern day slavery has now reported zero cases of slavery since the CIW's program has been in effect. They've moved the argument from a federal or state level simply to contract law.
MS: Could you talk a little bit about the Fair Food Program?
SR: The Fair Food Program was set up by the CIW as a way to enforce human rights and wages in the tomato supply chain in Florida. It really has two parts. There's a code of conduct that big buyers of tomatoes sign onto that requires them to have no human rights violations in the supply chain. More importantly, the Fair Food Program established an independent third party called the Fair Food Standards Council (FFSC) which is run by Judge Laura Safer Espinoza, a former New York State Supreme Court Judge who, according the agreement in the code of conduct, has the authority to investigate worker complaints. Now, the FFSC is not biased toward the worker. I believe they find that only about half the complaints are actual violations of the code, but the code gives them the ability to investigate these complaints. Secondly, the code of conduct provides a market incentive for farmers and buyers to adhere to it. If farmers or farms are found to be in violation of the code they are not allowed to sell to the buyers to who've signed onto the code. Meaning that farmer can no longer sell to 12 of the largest buyers of tomatoes in the world from Wal-Mart to Compass Group to McDonald's or Burger King and the rest. So there is now an incentive for farmers to make sure that workers' rights are upheld…Farm worker wages have remained stagnant for almost 30 years. Farm workers are still paid by the piece which is kind of a legacy of slavery. They're paid by the pound which is supposed to correlate to a minimum wage, but every time minimum wage is increased, the amount that farm workers have to pick is effectively increased if they want to meet that minimum wage. In Florida, tomato workers are paid a little more than 1 cent for every pound of tomatoes that they pick. That means they got to pick almost 2 tons a day over 8 hours in order to meet the equivalent of minimum wage. So the CIW asks these big buyers to pay just a penny more per pound of tomatoes which results in a doubling of farm worker wages from $7 and change per hour, to something closer to a living wage like $12-14 per hour. MS: What does that mean for the individual consumer?
SR: When you go a store and look at the tomatoes produced from Florida, they can range anywhere from 79 cents to $1.99 per pound and people are buying whole tomatoes, nobody's buying exactly a pound of tomatoes. An extra penny or a fraction of a penny per pound is something that we've seen more consumers would be willing to pay to know that their tomatoes weren't picked by slaves. And in many cases, we've found that the supermarket has enough of a margin that they can absorb the one penny themselves.
MS: Since the work of Cesar Chavez, as well as abolitionists earlier on in our history, what do you think the medium of film brings to the activism against the exploitation of people and what do you feel is Food Chain’s significance in this historic conversation?
SR: Again, great question. In the work that we're trying to do with Food Chains, diversity is of critical importance. The CIW recognizes that everyone involved in a system is a stakeholder. They didn't try to impose a set of rules on the farming system or the grocery buyers that weren't practical or didn't have the input of those other stakeholders. At the same time, the code of conduct that they put together was driven by the experiences of workers. Every system that works in the US involves people with multiple view points, and the only way that we can get those systems to function properly, ethically and morally is to give value to every single stakeholder.
MS: That's a new perspective on diversity, I haven't heard that one yet.
SR: I am sure you hear a lot [of different perspectives] that's good.
MS: It’s always fascinating what people say. This has been a very interesting and very educational conversation for me. So the film premieres on November 21st?
SR: Yes. The film is released nationwide November 21st, in cities all across the United States. We have a Facebook page Facebook.com/FoodChainsFilm and that's where people can receive daily updates on what we're doing, on what farm workers are doing. Our website is FoodChainsFilm.com which also has opportunities to get involved with some of the action the CIW are taking against large retailers and buyers.
SR: Mai thank you so much for the time!
MS: Thank you.
CLEO Edge contributing writer Mai Sennaar is an NYU alum and a playwright/screenwriter. Her latest work The Fall of the Kings, premieres this October at the 2014 Atlanta Black Theatre Festival.