Let’s Have a Jubilee: the Torah’s Fix for Modern-Day Slavery

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On a hot and sticky New York afternoon, an East Village parking space was home to a traveling museum–located inside a 20-foot truck. Even with fans running, it was uncomfortably hot in the truck yesterday, which only helped the exhibit to make its point. The truck is a model of the vehicle that was used to hold Florida tomato harvesters at night in a case of modern-day slavery. Photographs of wrists bruised by shackles are among the sparse display of hard-hitting images and text. The few artifacts include a bloody shirt retrieved from a worker who fled the fields after being violently beaten.

The successful prosecution of two brothers–labor contractors–who held workers in the truck nightly against their will is just one of five recent cases highlighted in the Florida Modern-Day Slavery Museum, a project developed by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) that is currently touring the Northeastern United States. Based in Florida’s rural tomato and citrus growing area with headquarters in the sleep town of Immokalee, the CIW and partners including Interfaith Action of Southwest Florida and Student Farmworker Alliance advocate for improvements in farmworker conditions, and developed the museum in a truck as a tool “to raise awareness and bring attention to the solution,” according to exhibit guide Brigitte Gynther of Immokalee’s Interfaith Action.

Through its Campaign for Fair Food, the CIW has gained recognition for its penny-per-pound campaigns to encourage major retailers, including Burger King and McDonald’s, to pay additional wages directly to piece-rate earning harvesters. The solution to modern-day slavery cases in farming, and to ending “the abuse and poverty in general” that allows such conditions, is to demand improved wages, and a zero-tolerance policy for forced labor through well-monitored codes of conduct, says Gynther. “Poverty and powerlessness are really at the roots of the slavery cases.” The instances of slavery highlighted at the museum were all perpetrated by labor contractors: debt bondage, violence toward workers, theft of legally obtained visas from migrant crew members, and the luring of prospective workers from homeless shelters. The common trope is one of worker intimidation. And as CIW tour guide Romeo Ramirez, a 29-year-old Guatemalan immigrant who has worked in farming all his life, explained, it is difficult to know when and where to seek assistance. He found his way to the CIW in 1998 after unexplained pay docks for his harvest work.

The treatment of farmworkers did not escape the Torah’s many dicta on agriculture, a series of laws and observations that are becoming an increasingly significant part of the intellectual discourse on sustainable, fair food. In a 2006 American Jewish World Service Torah commentary on a parshat that examines agricultural workers, Rabbi David Rosenn, the founder of AVODAH and the current COO of the New Israel Fund, looked at the significance of the Jubilee year, “one of the Torah’s most revolutionary ideas.” Every 50th year, debts are forgiven and land is redistributed to original owners, ensuring that even the unfortunate individuals whose unproductive farms forced them away from their own property into a migrant pattern of working on other farms–leaving them without reliable work, income, or property assets–would not permanently become a class in servitude.

Interfaith Action’s Gynther says that the problems agricultural workers face are about more than wages, immigration, or piece-rate pay mechanisms. It’s about “the real power in the agriculture industry,” and consolidation among major growers and retailers whose “demand for artificially cheap tomatoes” has a direct impact on labor costs. The power imbalance between the poorest migrant harvesters and the fast food executives is precisely the type of inequality that the Jubilee year is designed to correct. As Steven Stoll mused in Harper’s Magazine recently, the Jubilee year “constitutes nothing less than the first land-reform measure. The upshot was a legal mechanism for preventing class differences.”

One visitor to the Florida Modern-Day Slavery Museum, Orlanda Brugnola, an adjunct assistant professor of philosophy at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and a Unitarian Universalist minister, was offering extra credit to students who took part in fair food efforts. She found the museum to be a provocative, though unsurprising, portrayal of greed and the corresponding systematic devaluation of labor. “If you look at the workplace and the world, whether farms or other businesses, workers are usually treated as objects of use. To me, that’s not an acceptable way of treating any human being.” Having just returned from protests in Arizona against the state’s new immigration law, Brugnola expounded to say that “the greatness of the nation can be judged by how it treats all the people within its borders.”

The museum’s mission is to serve as an educational tool and call to action for participation in its campaign to restructure the power imbalance–a campaign that seeks, in many ways, to function as the “modern-day equivalent of the Jubilee year: a way to prevent dispossession and destitution from becoming the inheritance of families and countries over generations,” as Rabbi Rosenn writes. For Ramirez, who was visiting New York for the third time, the museum was helping to make progress. Visitors, including two couples from South Florida, were positive and hopeful, he said. Modern-day slavery exists, but with a modern-day adaptation of the Jubilee year, perhaps the structural obstacles toward eliminating inequity can be eliminated.

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