Modern Slavery Exhibit At University of Tampa

04/05/10 Kate Bradshaw
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The Coalition of Immokalee Workers brought its Traveling Farmworker Museum to the University of Tampa today. The exhibit takes a tough look at forced labor throughout the state of Florida.

Among items on display were chains once used to confine farm laborers, a thirty-two pound bushel of tomatoes, and a heavily-stained button-down work shirt. Sean Sellers of Just Harvest USA asked a small crowd of University of Tampa students what they thought those stains were. When no one gave an answer, he told them it was blood.

Sellers said this treatment was normal in many Florida fields and was administered for the most questionable reasons.

The bushel of tomatoes was there to show how little some growers pay the people who pick their crops. Workers, he said, get about forty-five cents per bushel, which is only five cents more than the going rate was for the same thing in 1980. The bushels weigh thirty-two pounds, but to pick enough tomatoes to earn amount to what some people would pay for a pair of sunglasses is nothing short of Herculean.

Sellers makes the distinction between this and forced labor. He says that a number of factors make it easy for vulnerable populations like recent immigrants, the homeless and others to be subject to miniscule pay and to become captives of crew leaders.

The museum gives a history of slavery in Florida from before the Civil War to the current struggles workers face. Sellers says the Sunshine State hasn’t seen a day without forced labor in centuries.

Michael Rios is a University of Tampa student from Immokalee, Fla. He said he went to school with children of migrant farm workers and their bosses. He said the coalition’s portrayal of worker living conditions is accurate.

The exhibit’s centerpiece is a replica of a truck trailer in which four farm workers were locked in late 2007. Sean Sellers of Just Harvest USA said this was one of several incidences of forced labor that have been prosecuted in Florida in recent years.

When the workers notified authorities, an investigation ensued. They found substandard living and brutal working conditions. Sellers said that if a worker wanted a shower he or she would have to pay five dollars to get sprayed with a garden hose. The two bosses were convicted and sentenced to twelve years apiece. But a leading law enforcement official told the press the story wasn’t over.

Sellers said it isn’t those at the top of the command chain who are purely at fault.

But he did say that pressuring retailers – those directly impacted by consumer dollars – is the best way to stop mistreatment of migrant farm workers. The Coalition of Immokalee Farmworkers has succeeded in getting some retailers, including McDonald’s Corp., Whole Foods Market and most recently Aramark, to pay a penny more per pound of tomatoes so that growers can pass those benefits on to workers. Getting consumers to participate in pressuring retailers is also key, he said. University of Tampa student Caitlin Miller said that the museum has inspired her to think about where her food comes from.

The museum will be on display at the UT campus until 6 p.m. tomorrow, Tuesday. Our website, WMNF dot org slash news, has a list of all the Tampa Bay area stops for the traveling Farmworkers Slavery Museum. On Friday, April 16, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers will lead a three-day march from Downtown Tampa to Lakeland to demand that Publix supermarkets to pay a penny more per pound for its tomatoes.

Here's the schedule for the remainder of the traveling museum stops:

Tues, Apr. 6: University of Tampa, 401 W. Kennedy Blvd., Tampa, 9 a.m.-6 p.m.

Wed., Apr. 7: St. Petersburg College, Allstate Center, 3200 4th St. S., 10 a.m.-3 p.m.

Fri., Apr. 9: Florida Institute for Community Studies, 6704 Hanley Rd., Tampa, 4 p.m.-8 p.m.

Monday, April 12: Library Loop, Eckerd College, St. Petersburg, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.

Tuesday, April 13 & Wednesday, Apr. 14: Green East of Cooper Hall, University of South Florida, 4202 E. Fowler Ave., Tampa.

Previous WMNF coverage of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers:

Immokalee workers reach deal with Aramark

Publix refuses to negotiate with farmworker coalition

Farm workers protest Publix in Lakeland

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