Fruit slaves.

I read a fascinating article in the most recent (soon to be one issue ago) issue of the New Yorker about migrant workers in Florida. The extensive piece documented the conditions of slavery in which fruit-picking migrant workers are kept. They pay a coyote to take them over the border from Mexico, who puts them in a van, takes them in a van to Florida (not letting them out of the vehicle once on the entire trip), where their passage is paid for by the owners of fruit-picking-contractor companies. Having arrived unexpectedly and entirely destitute (and speaking no English), they are forced to rely entirely on their employers to survive. For this they are not paid, but instead told that they are still working off their debts. If they attempt to leave, they are killed.

Now, I’m a big fan of orange juice. “Fan” is too weak. I’m actually addicted. If I go a week without OJ (God help me), I start to get antsy. I need my fix. My favorite is Florida’s Natural, but Tropicana is really more within my budget. Not from concentrate, pulp-free, in the bleach bottle. Well, this article specifically named Tropicana (and Minute Maid) as companies that rely on these slave-holding picking contractors for their oranges. And there is simply no way that I can support either of these companies, knowing that they actually enslave people to make this juice. So I wrote a letter to Florida’s Natural to find out what policies or standards that they had in place to ensure that their oranges did not come from such terrible circumstances.

From: “Dave Crumbly”
Date: Mon Apr 28, 2003 11:26:07 AM US/Eastern
Subject: Re: Harvesting Concern


Good hearing from you. As you probably know from our ads, Florida’s Natural Growers is a cooperative of citrus growers. Our oranges come from these growers. Today, most of the fruit we receive is harvested by hand, while some volume is now being harvested mechanically. While mechanical harvesting is in its infancy, our cooperative has been one of the leaders of this developmental effort by encouraging growers to utilize this method of harvest to the extent possible. We have worked closely with those harvesting mechanically by providing adequate delivery allocations and providing feedback as to how the process can be improved. Over the next few years we expect fruit volumes harvested mechanically to increase dramatically. This effort is critical as we continue to see our work force gravitate towards the construction and tourism industries.

In the meantime we will continue to need hand labor to help harvest our fruit. Florida’s Natural Growers is actually a “federated” cooperative, meaning we’re a cooperative of 12 smaller grower cooperatives. These 12 smaller cooperatives generally handle the harvesting requirements of their 1,000+ grower-members. We feel very good about the types of operations these cooperatives conduct. They pay a competitive wage and their work forces generally handle their own living arrangements just as you or I would.

There are very strict rules that the State of Florida administers to insure the well being of agriculture workers. Routine checks are made to see that things such as drinking water, wash water, and bathroom facilities are provided at the field locations. Records are required to insure individuals working on “piece rates” make no less than minimum wage (although actual wages are routinely well above minimum). Unfortunately, from time to time (rarely today), stories arise of an unscrupulous contractor that has taken advantage of his work force. When the contractor is identified he faces criminal charges. Again unfortunately, when these rare occurrences are identified they are widely reported and create a perception that this is the industry norm. Nothing could be further from the truth.

It’s great to hear that Florida’s Natural is your OJ of choice. The emphasis our growers demand be put on quality has certainly resulted in success for our cooperative. These growers also understand if their crops cannot be harvested their efforts are wasted. They appreciate the harvesters and would never subject them to the conditions you describe in your email. Thanks for giving me the opportunity to discuss.

Dave Crumbly
Fruit Department, Florida’s Natural Growers

Published by Waldo Jaquith

Waldo Jaquith (JAKE-with) is an open government technologist who lives near Char­lottes­­ville, VA, USA. more »