Eric Schlosser

Is one of my favorite writers. Yes, I am one of those people for whom reading Fast Food Nation was a life-changing event. (I never saw the film; was it good?) I also read portions of his newer book, Reefer Madness -- the portions on migrant laborers.

His new op-ed in the NY Times strikes especially close to home, being as it is about a local corporation (Burger King is a SoFla Co, if you didn't know), and a major local issue: the near-enslavement of migrant workers -- most of whom are here illegally, making them vulnerable to abuses unimaginable to those of us whom fortune has bestowed with "legality."

Migrant farm laborers have long been among America’s most impoverished workers. Perhaps 80 percent of the migrants in Florida are illegal immigrants and thus especially vulnerable to abuse. During the past decade, the United States Justice Department has prosecuted half a dozen cases of slavery among farm workers in Florida. Migrants have been driven into debt, forced to work for nothing and kept in chained trailers at night.
Andrew Cockburn's 2003 National Geographic article "21st Century Slaves" affected me so much I actually taught from it one semester. Click those links and the first thing you'll see is that, "There are more slaves today than were seized from Africa in four centuries of the trans-Atlantic slave trade." We understandably think of slavery as a 19th Century issue, but slavery goes on today, and the Abolitionist movement is nowhere to be found. In part, that's because slavery's gone underground. You might see six enslaved men carted down I-95 in the back of a pickup truck, but how would you know they were slaves? We assume it doesn't exist, and so we don't see it. One of the stories (not accessible on the online version) told by Cockburn is of a trailer full of men in chains, in Florida, men literally enslaved, that was kept right beside the entrance to a lovely gated community. People drove past slavery every day on their way to and from their own homes, and did not see it.

So I was really pleased to see that the plight of the enslaved was mentioned by Schlosser as well. My almost-finished novel, which is based on Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, but set in Southwest Florida, uses this very setting: it takes place on a sugar plantation staffed by illegal migrant workers. Because the workers have no rights, it gives the story that aristocratic flavor (a Duke, a Countess, their powerless servants) found in Shakespeare's original.

So the real point of Schlosser's op-ed...

In 2005, Florida tomato pickers gained their first significant pay raise since the late 1970s when Taco Bell ended a consumer boycott by agreeing to pay an extra penny per pound for its tomatoes, with the extra cent going directly to the farm workers. Last April, McDonald’s agreed to a similar arrangement, increasing the wages of its tomato pickers to about 77 cents per bucket. But Burger King, whose headquarters are in Florida, has adamantly refused to pay the extra penny — and its refusal has encouraged tomato growers to cancel the deals already struck with Taco Bell and McDonald’s.
...is about much more than just whether or not the most poorly-paid and abused people in Florida are going to get a tiny hike in pay, or have their previous tiny hikes maliciously taken away. It's about the rights of human beings to be free. The best way to free the people who are currently literally enslaved is to improve the working conditions of the migrant workers as a whole, the piece-pay slaves; The Coalition of Immokalee Workers is the most awe-inspiring group of any kind in America. This is the most powerless group of people taking on the tallest climb against the greatest opponents, surrounded by not just the indifference but the outright ignorance of the American people. What, here, slavery?

Making things worse, many Americans decry "illegal immigrants" as though they are some other type of human, as though this entire continent weren't snatched violently from its native people, as though this society weren't built on the sweat of the enslaved and near-enslaved, as though every group that came here wasn't, at first, seen as some kind of "scourge": the poor white trash ("Polacks," "Micks," "Bohemians," "Kikes") from Europe.

Just as Irish children worked in textile mills in New England two centuries ago, Salvadoran children work in tomato fields in Florida. Invisible, unschooled, without rights. A sub-class of people. "Illegal" people. The future will be made of their descendants, and those descendants may be proud of their ancestors' struggles, or may forget them, or may complain about the latest "scourge," like their rights go without saying and the new people's rights are a deeply offensive cut to their hearts.

What most offends me is when people who claim to be "Christians" become hatefully righteous and indignant, apparently putting their "love" of law above their love and compassion for their fellow human beings in need (I have a student who is a very public Christian who recently railed to me about those horrible "illegals" and I had to hold my breath to keep from throwing him out a window) -- what would Jesus think of that? If Jesus were alive today, he'd be walking the tomato fields, ministering to the people who need it, and condemning the Burger King eating, public-praying, money-counting, law-loving Hypocrites.

So would it kill you to boycott Burger King? Maybe write a letter? Maybe show up at Burger King headquarters in Miami tomorrow to protest? Get involved! Where have all the abolitionists gone? Just a thought.

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