Human Trafficking and the Food We Buy

By Brigitte Gynther 1-11-2011

January 11 is recognized around the world as Human Trafficking Awareness Day. Today we recognize the countless men, women, and children who are held against their will around the world and here in the United States. It is also an opportunity to reflect upon our charge to "bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners." (Isaiah 61:1)

The State Department's "Trafficking in Persons Report 2010" reveals a startling fact:

With the majority of modern slaves in agriculture and mining around the world -- and forced labor prevalent in cotton, chocolate, steel, rubber, tin, tungsten, coltan, sugar, and seafood -- it is impossible to get dressed, drive to work, talk on the phone, or eat a meal without touching products tainted by forced labor.

Indeed, while slavery is often a hidden crime, we are connected to our brothers and sisters who labor against their will in other states and countries through the food we eat and the products we use.

In Florida agriculture, the source of much of our produce in the winter months, there have been seven successful federal prosecutions of forced labor, involving more than 1,100 farmworkers. In the summer of 2010, the U.S. Department of Justice began prosecuting two more cases involving Florida farmworkers, one of which encompassed farmworkers in 13 states in what the FBI called "the largest human trafficking case ever charged in U.S. history."

Fortunately, there is a burgeoning movement to end slavery in Florida's fields. Working together, the farmworkers of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) and conscientious consumers are transforming the way the food industry operates. Nine major retailers, including Taco Bell, McDonald's, Burger King, Subway, Whole Foods, Compass, Group, Aramark, and Sodexo, have reached fair food agreements with the CIW. These agreements include a code of conduct that aims to eliminate the abuses that allow slavery to flourish and establishes a zero-tolerance policy for forced labor.

As a result of the fair food agreements, more than 90 percent of Florida tomato growers are now working with the CIW and retailers to implement the fair food agreements.

Despite these landmark advances towards eliminating slavery and abuses in the fields, the supermarket industry has resisted doing its part. Kroger, Stop & Shop/Giant, Trader Joe's, and Publix, have all failed to join in the fair food agreements and address slavery and abuses in the fields. As the State Department's report pointed out: "Even reputable companies can profit from abuses when they do not protect their supply chain

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