Something is rotten in the state of Florida, and the stench is
coming from a tomato field in Immokalee.
Three Mexican women worked in the same southwest Florida field
with their husbands and lived in the same migrant labor camp. All
three became pregnant last year, and
all three gave birth to babies who were terribly malformed.
Carlitos was born without arms and legs. Jesus was born with a jaw
not fully developed, leaving his tongue to flop back in his mouth.
Violeta was born without a nose and ear and died a few days
The couples worked for Ag-Mart, the marketer of ‘Santa Sweets’
tomatoes, which apparently require some 30 different chemicals to
grow. In an extensive special report on the births, The Palm
Beach Post found that between 1999 and 2003 the
company was cited three times for violations of pesticide
regulations in other fields in Florida — a state where
oversight falls under the allegedly industry-friendly purview of
the state Department of Agriculture.
State officials have launched an investigation, and Ag-Mart is
‘looking into the issue’ as well. It is far too early to peg the
families’ plights on pesticides. But the newspaper’s report raises
several disturbing issues. Three of the chemicals used in the field
have been shown to cause birth defects in lab animals. While
chemicals are tested individually for safety, there is scant
information on their effects when combined. And complaints abound
that proper precautions — like not allowing workers into a field
for a period of time after pesticides have been used — are sorely
lacking. This in the state that ranks first in pesticides doused
But pesticides aren’t the only hardship workers in Florida’s
agricultural fields have to contend with. The
Coalition of Immokalee
Workers has been hard at work for years to raise awareness of
the sweatshop-like conditions facing immigrant workers. The group
has brought to light modern-day slavery operations and has been a
crucial partner for the religious and students groups that have
popularized the movement for farm workers’ rights.
This month they scored a huge victory when
Taco Bell agreed to pay suppliers one more cent per pound of
Florida tomatoes, meaning an earnings increase of about 80
percent. The company stipulated that the boost be passed on
directly to the workers.
Lucas Benitez, a CIW leader, told
The Courier-Journal of Louisville, Kentucky, ‘Our
struggle is basically just to become poor in this country.’ But
while that single cent may seem meager, the agreement could have
larger repercussions. Taco Bell is owned by the world’s largest
fast-food corporation, Louisville-based Yum! Brands Inc., and has
said it will work with CIW to foster better pay and working
conditions. What’s more, groups showed that a three-year boycott by
dedicated individuals can get a major corporation to change its
Why was Carlitos born this way?
- Coalition of Immokalee
The Pickers Finally Win
Church, Student Groups Aided Workers’ Campaign
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