Slavery in America - Meet Antonio
Throughout our Recipe for Change campaign this summer, we'll be sharing stories about slavery in Florida's tomato fields. We are grateful to the Coalition of Immokalee Workers for providing this story.
At 21 years old, Antonio had a high-paying job awaiting him in California’s construction industry, or so he was told - a bright prospect that lured him north from his native Mexico. He had hoped desperately to support his ailing parents and younger siblings. Instead, Antonio found himself stuck in a sweltering Florida field, watching a tomato crew leader haggle over how much to pay for each worker with the man who dropped him off there.
That was the moment when, Antonio says, “I realized I had been sold like an animal without any compassion."
His employer housed over 30 tomato pickers in two single-wide trailers on isolated swampland west of Immokalee, keeping them under constant watch. Antonio and his friends were threatened with violence and death if they were to attempt to leave to work elsewhere. "For four and a half months, I was held in forced labor in the fields, and it seemed like an eternity to me, he said. “They were watching me all the time, controlling all I did. I thought I was going to die.”
Antonio and three other workers escaped the camp, only to have their employer track them down a few weeks later. The employer ran Antonio down with his truck, stating that he owned him. Antonio and his coworkers sought help from the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) and the police, and the CIW worked with the Department of Justice on the ensuing investigation. Despite threats from his traffickers' agents, Antonio assisted in the investigation and prosecution, testifying about what he had suffered. In 1999, the tomato boss was sent to federal prison on slavery charges.
Following his escape and the prosecution of his captors, Antonio became actively involved in the CIW's Campaign for Fair Food. Antonio joined others in calling on Taco Bell to take responsibility for conditions in their tomato supply chain, including participating in a 10-day hunger strike outside Taco Bell's headquarters in Irvine, CA in 2003. Eventually, Taco Bell agreed to join the Fair Food Program.
“Thanks to God, I was able to escape and it allowed me to become more and more aware. I’m out here learning more and more every day,” Antonio said, reflecting on his journey from slavery to freedom and activism.
Antonio has also devoted many volunteer hours speaking to faith-based groups, on student campuses, and to the broader public about the CIW's labor abuse prevention program, the Fair Food Program, in which the CIW, corporate buyers, and growers partner to eliminate forced labor and other abuses from tomato supply chains. Amongst other activities, Antonio walked 230 miles across the state of Florida during the 2000 March for Dignity, and at the request of the U.S. Department of Justice, assisted with a human trafficking training for law enforcement and government officials in southern Mexico. In 2007, he participated in an intensive case study by Anti-Slavery International (ASI) of London, prior to ASI's awarding to the CIW the 2007 Anti-Slavery Award. His experience and work have also been detailed in two books, The Slave Next Door (Bales and Soodalter, 2010) and Nobodies: Modern American Slave Labor and the Dark Side of the Global Economy (Bowe, 2008).
What is the Fair Food Program?
Today the nation's largest retailers in the fast-food and food-service sectors have joined the CIW's Fair Food Program, a joint effort with farmworkers and Florida's largest tomato growers to confront egregious abuses on Florida's tomato farms. Chains like Whole Foods, Trader Joe's, McDonald's, Taco Bell and Subway have agreed to buy Florida tomatoes only from suppliers that comply with the Fair Food Code of Conduct, designed to protect workers' basic rights. But mainstream supermarkets have yet to support the program.
You can take action right now: Encourage U.S. supermarkets to sign on to the Fair Food Program today!
Justice Campaigns mobilizes people around the country in support of U.S. policies that will lead to the abolition of human trafficking and modern-day slavery. Join us this summer for Recipe for Change, as we campaign for slave-free tomatoes.
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