There are twelve people serving time in prison today for enslaving farm workers in Florida. Some of them are going to stay in jail for a long, long time. But that does not mean that the mistreatment of farm workers has ended.
One of those people is Ronald Evans. He was arrested in Immokalee, Florida, in 2007 and convicted and sentenced to thirty years in prison. Evans and his crew kept 85 men who worked for them in debt as a way to keep them locked into jobs picking tomatoes. They brutally beat workers who were unwilling to work. When workers tried to escape, Evans put them in chains and locked them in an 18-foot truck.
The farm workers in Immokalee are not Jewish. Some are immigrants from Mexico, Honduras, Guatamala, Haiti, and South America. Some are Americans whose parents and grandparents came here from those countries. Why would a group of American rabbis want to get involved?
Part of my answer comes out of an interpretation of a verse from Torah we studied today. (You can't put a group of rabbis together without some Torah study):
"Do not bring an abhorrence into your house, or you will become an outcast thing like it..." (Deuteronomy 7:26)
In this case, slavery and the abuse of workers is the thing we are warned not to bring into our homes. When we purchase foods, such as tomatoes, that have been picked by abused workers, we become complicit in their exploitation. In a spiritual sense, we could even say that in buying the products of slavery we make ourselves slaves, "an outcast thing like it." It is as if we declare that we are so enslaved by our desire for convenience and cheap produce that we cannot allow our moral sensibilities to override it. Even for a tomato.
This is not to say that every tomato is tainted. Pacific Tomato Growers (makers of "Sunripe Tomatoes") is just one of the tomato growers that has signed an agreement with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. So have about 90% of the growers in Florida. The agreements set standards for the treatment of farm workers. Because these workers' wages have not increased in thirty years, the agreement also creates a mechanism for them to receive an extra penny per pound for the tomatoes they pick. The restaurant chains, Taco Bell, Chipotle, McDonald's, Burger King, and Subway also have signed. So have the supermarket chains Whole Foods and Trader Joe's.
On the other hand, Publix has not. The largest supermarket chain in Florida, the state that produces the most tomatoes, has refused to meet with the CIW for the last four years to discuss efforts to combat the exploitation of farm workers who pick the tomatoes on their shelves.
Eating the fruits of slavery is bad for the Jews. It makes us forget who we are—the people who are commanded, "Love the stranger as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt" (Leviticus 19:34).
Don't be a slave to your selfish desires. Make the choice instead to rule yourself according to your highest values. Make yourself like those we hope for, not like the misery of their oppression.
Other Posts on This Topic:
Coming Out of Hiding
Sukkot: Reconnecting to Our Food
Devarim: Bringing Your Questions to God
Sh'mini: Eat. Pray. Kashrut.
Lifting Our Hands