After being locked in the back of a U-Haul truck, Mariano Lucas Domingo saw a literal light at the end of the tunnel — he punched his way through a small opening in the roof and freed himself. An illegal immigrant from Guatemala, Domingo expected to make about $200 a week picking tomatoes in Immokalee, Florida, a town not far from wealthy snowbird communities like Naples and Fort Myers. Domingo found himself, however, bound by the chains of modern slavery. When the United States Department of Justice released its indictment, Domingo’s captors, Cesar and Giovanni Naverete, were accused of threatening, slapping, kicking, and beating the men they held on the family property. The report claimed the Navaretes chained people to poles, locked them in U-Haul trailers, and forced them to work for free.
From 1997 to 2010, more than 1,200 farmworkers have been freed from similar slavery rings in the area. Food Chains, produced by Eva Longoria, Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation and Food Inc.), Smriti Keshari, Hamilton Fish, and director Sanjay Rawal, tells the story of those at the bottom of the chain.
As a result of the everyday abuse they experienced while picking tomatoes (Florida supplies the majority of the United States in the winter months), migrant workers banded together to form the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW). And while they are no longer being held in bondage — or not as frequently, at least — there’s still a long way to go. These workers earn well under the poverty line — the average worker picks and hauls 4,000 pounds of tomatoes per 12-hour day, and, because they’re paid by the pound, they bring home less than $12,000 a year — even while grocery and fast-food chains bring in hundreds of billions annually.
For women, it’s even worse. One in four women in the U.S. workforce experiences sexual harassment; on the male-dominated farms, it’s estimated that 80 percent of females deal with inappropriate sexual behavior or even rape.
Such horrific conditions are what motivated this film. “A lot of us in New York and San Francisco and other metropolitan areas around the nation are really interested in food right now,” producer Keshari tells the Voice. “A lot of questions are being raised about how animals are treated, organics, sustainability, but not the hands that pick their food.”
And while Florida was ground zero for worker abuse, the CIW has been working on solutions to create fairer working environments. However, it’s not the only place that has faced problems; millions of farm workers are still vulnerable to exploitation. Food Chains also crosses the continent to California to highlight the vast socioeconomic differences between wealthy Napa Valley residents and prestigious wineries — and the hands that pick some of the world’s most illustrious grapes.
Archival footage sets the current state of the agricultural workers against the backdrop of history, from the civil rights movement (including excerpts by Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy) to news coverage of César Chávez, Dolores Huerta, and their fight for better working conditions with the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA) and clips from Edward R. Murrow’s celebrated documentary Harvest of Shame, which exposed the plight of migrant workers during the boom-time economy of the 1960s.
Following in the footsteps of journalist Barry Estabrook’s Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit, this film explores the problems and presents a solution — so you’ll be upset, but won’t feel forlorn in the end.
In the beginning the CIW targeted farmers in search of higher wages and working conditions; the group quickly discovered the farmers were being pinched just as hard (albeit not physically beaten) by the $4 trillion supermarket industry. To achieve its goals, the coalition moved to the top of the food chain, aiming for two things: an additional penny per pound of tomatoes to increase workers’ wages, and a code of conduct on the retailers’ end, called the Fair Food Program, to ensure workers have a voice. “They realized the retailers and the consumers held the power,” says Keshari. “It uses the power of market consequences to drive the system.”
So far, more than $15 million has been paid in premiums to workers, 600 workers have complained about unfair workplace situations, and 100,000 have received materials on their rights. “As basic as it seems, there was nothing like this,” Keshari says.
After years of protest and public urging, the CIW has brought many retailers into the fold of the Fair Food Program, including Taco Bell, McDonald’s, Burger King, Trader Joe’s, and Whole Foods Market (which is releasing a Fair Food label sometime soon); however, the organization is looking to grow. Currently, it’s targeting one of the nation’s largest supermarket chains, Publix — which is, ironically, known for being worker-friendly — and fast-food chain Wendy’s. “We’re really asking consumers of Wendy’s to put pressure on them,” says Keshari. “We created this film to be a tool. The engagement and impact is really big for us.”
In an effort to persuade the burger giant, the CIW and Community Farmworkers Alliance are staging a Fair Foods March in New York on Saturday, November 22 at 1 p.m. The plan is to meet at the Union Square Wendy’s (20 East 14th Street) and march to the Broadway Wendy’s (650 Broadway #1).
“This is my favorite quote from Greg Asbed, co-founder of the CIW,” says Keshari. ” ‘There’s a revolution happening in America’s fields, and it’s a peaceful one.’ It’s a beautiful way to look at the change that is happening; it’s working and it’s real.”
Food Chains drops in theaters on Friday, November 21. Visit foodchainsfilm.com.
Follow Sara Ventiera on Twitter, @saraventiera.