By Doug Ohlemeier, The Packer

The spokesman for Florida’s tomato industry defended his growers against critics in a Washington, D.C., congressional hearing in which growers were accused of enslaving and mistreating their workers.

During an April 15 hearing of the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions titled “Ending Abuses and Improving Working Conditions for Tomato Workers,” Reggie Brown, executive vice president of the Maitland-based Florida Tomato Growers Exchange, presented his growers’ response to the accusations.

The hearings focused on alleged abuse occurring in Immokalee, Fla., the state’s winter tomato production and packing hub.

“We are on the same side of the issues as you are,” Brown told the senators, which included Sens. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., and Bernie Sanders, Ind.-Vt. “We are as opposed to slavery as you are, senator. Florida’s tomato growers abhor and condemn slavery. Charges that tomato producers have enslaved workers are false and defamatory. We are like any business — without our valued employees, we would not survive.”

Roy Reyna, farm manager of Bradenton, Fla.-based Grainger Farms’ Immokalee operation, also testified, and said he had never witnessed any situations of slavery or involuntary servitude.

“In my 25-year history of working in Florida’s tomato fields, I have never seen slavery or any situation where someone was forced to work against their will,” said Reyna, the son of a Mexican-born U.S. farm worker. “As you know, there are lots of challenges in the community of Immokalee. I wish the area had better housing and services for its residents. Our company owns brand new, government-inspected housing so that our workers have a clean place to live.”

The senators in the hearing expressed anger that Florida tomato growers and Miami-based Burger King had resisted a proposal by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers farmworker group to have fast-food giants such as McDonald’s and Yum! Brands pay tomato workers an extra penny per pound.

The senators said the per-bushel piece rate that Immokalee farm workers are paid has not increased in the past 20 years and that Immokalee workers remain housed in substandard conditions, all points that Brown contested.

Former tomato worker and coalition co-founder Lucas Benitez claimed “huge agribusinesses” control how people in Immokalee work.

“The reason I am here today is very troubling,” he said. “There is slavery in the fields of the U.S. in the 21st Century.

Eric Schlosser, author of “Fast Food Nation,” contended that slavery, indentured servitude and desperate workers living in fear exist in Immokalee.

After the hearing, Schlosser said the issue will gain more prominence if a Democrat is elected president. No Republicans attended the hearing.

Schlosser also questioned why the industry warned about the possible antitrust ramifications of the campaign.

“I can't see why grower-shippers should be prohibited from entering into a voluntary business relationship with two of the biggest tomato purchasers in the United States," Schlosser said. “The status quo is untenable. Growers who are wise see that,"

Brown acknowledged that the U.S. Justice Department had prosecuted and jailed individuals for human trafficking, but said those were cases of individuals enslaving people for their own enrichment and that the convicted weren’t connected with Florida’s commercial tomato industry.

Brown told the senators about the 2006 industry-developed Socially Accountable Farm Employers program that has independent inspectors auditing tomato fields and packinghouses, ensuring Florida growers have complied with employment laws and do not harass their workers.

He said the tomato growers don’t object to fast-food operations paying tomato workers extra money, but for legal reasons, said the industry simply doesn’t want to become a conduit through which the money flows.

After hearing conflicting testimony regarding Immokalee tomato pickers’ wages, Sen. Sanders said he planned to request a congressional and Government Accountability Office investigation of the wages. He also recommended the committee examine antitrust implications of the tomato exchange.

Sen. Kennedy opened the hearing by warning the tomato industry that Congress wasn’t going to let anyone off the hook.

“We want all to know that we’re not letting up and letting it end,” he said. “We’re staying after this issue. We want all of those, particularly the growers, to understand we’re staying after this.”

The leading tomato supplier to U.S. buyers from November through spring, Florida growers provide more than 80 percent of shipments, according to the Florida Tomato Committee.