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SLAVERY IN AMERICA: Julia’s Story
Throughout our Recipe for Change campaign this summer, well be sharing stories about slavery in Floridas tomato fields. We are grateful to the Coalition of Immokalee Workers for providing this story.
In 1992, a hopeful 19-year-old named Julia left war-torn Guatemala for the United States; her mother, earning a meager $55 a month, was struggling to support her family. Julia hoped to find work in the U.S. in order to send money back to help. Little did she know what awaited. Here I was, thinking I was coming to America for a better life but this was a real nightmare, she recalled.
Julia ended up working in rural Manning, South Carolina, housed at the labor camp of her crew bosses, who employed over 400 workers in South Carolina and Florida, harvesting vegetables and citrus. Julia recounts, I was told Id work in the fields What they didnt tell me was that I had just consented, without knowing, to be a prisoner and a slave.
Julias workday began each day at four am, when she would be awakened by the crew leaders gunshots. She and her co-workers toiled in the fields 10-12 hours a day, 6 to 7 days a week, under the watch of armed guards. After the bosses deducted the money they claimed Julia owed for transport, rent, food, and other charges, she was earning only $20 a week about twenty-four cents an hour. Day and night, armed guards surrounded the large compound to keep workers from escaping to work elsewhere. Those who tried to leave were assaulted, pistol-whipped, and even shot. Julia witnessed a man being beaten and threatened at gunpoint, a man who had simply told others that he believed people didnt have to work by force in the United States.
In the middle of one dark summer night, Julia managed to escape into the South Carolina countryside, fleeing with some of her friends to a different farm three hours south. Shortly after, she and her friends met CIW members who were doing outreach to labor camps during the summer harvest, and Julia recounted the nightmare of her life before. For five years after that, Julia and CIW members pressured the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) to investigate. Julia located additional witnesses, and, at great risk, even went back to the camp incognito to check on friends who had not escaped. In 1997, the bosses were sentenced in federal court to 15 years each in federal prison on slavery, extortion, and firearms charges. Julia testified at the sentencing, bravely facing her traffickers in person in the courtroom.
Since that time, Julia has sought justice not only for herself, but also for others, as an active member of the CIW. Among other activities, she marched 230 miles from Fort Myers to Orlando on the March for Dignity; participated in the Taco Bell Truth Tours from Florida to California; counseled women victims of a forced prostitution operation at the request of the Department of Justice; and presented at an FBI human trafficking training for special agents at Quantico. In 2003, she, along with two other CIW members, received the internationally renowned Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award for their anti-slavery work, in a ceremony in the Senate building in Washington, DC. She and her colleagues were the first U.S.based recipients to win the award.
© Coalition of Immokalee Workers
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 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.
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 guaranteed slave-free tomatoes.