As Jews, we find ourselves in one of the most spiritually intense periods of the year -- the Aseret Ymei Teshuvah -- the 10 Days of Repentance carrying us from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur. Our tradition envisions that the gates of Divine Judgment open on Rosh Hashanah and close at Yom Kippur's end, necessitating reflection and atonement for our sins in the past. The Jewish liturgy offers an expansive confessional section called Vidui where the community verbally confesses together to any number of offenses.
This year, I'll be adding a verse to the list: Al cheit shechatanu l'fanecha -- for the sin we have committed against You by mindlessly reaping the benefits of slavery.
Sept. 22, 2012 marks the 150th anniversary of Lincoln issuing the first draft of the Emancipation Proclamation, the first major step to rid the scourge of slavery in America forever. In truth, though, the fulfillment of the ideal that the document envisioned has never been realized on American soil. Systems of indentured servitude and forced labor continued throughout the decades, and although slavery is certainly illegal today, it endures nevertheless, and in fact proves just as, if not more brutal, albeit much more hidden.
According to the U.S. State Department, approximately 17,000 foreign nationals are trafficked into the United States and enslaved annually.
"Overwhelmingly, they come on the promise of a better life, with the opportunity to work and prosper in America. Many come in the hope of earning enough money to support or send for their families. They do not come to knowingly be enslaved. In order to afford the journey, they pay their life savings and go into debt to people who make promises they have no intention of keeping, and instead of opportunity, when they arrive they find bondage ... By definition, they are slaves. Today, we call it human trafficking, but it is the slave trade."
Where can we find evidence of this slavery? Look no further than American tomatoes. Ninety percent of the fresh tomatoes consumed in our country between November and May come from Florida and are likely harvested by forced labor. These workers picking tomatoes do not earn wages based on the government-established minimum hourly wage. Instead, their income is based on how many tomatoes they can pick, and the rate of compensation is stunningly low. Workers must pick and haul a staggering 2.5 tons of tomatoes in order to earn minimum wage for a typical 10-hour day. In addition, as Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster of Rabbis for Human Rights pointed out, "Forced labor and slavery in Florida is just the extreme end of a continuum of worker exploitation that includes sexual harassment, dangerous exposure to pesticides, wage theft, and violence."
Enter the Coalition of Immakolee Workers in Florida, a worker-driven grassroots organization working to legally end this horrific reality through its Fair Food Program: "The market-based initiative seeks to improve the tomato harvesting wage floor and institutionalize a voice for farmworkers by requiring large food retailers to demand more humane labor standards from their Florida tomato suppliers, to pay a penny more per pound for more fairly produced tomatoes, and to buy only from growers who meet those higher standards."
Many retailers have signed on to the Fair Food Program, including Taco Bell, Whole Foods, Trader Joe's and McDonalds. One notable hold-out however is Chipotle Mexican Grill. Despite the fast-food chain's claim of providing sustainable, integrity-based ingredients in its food, there is no way to assure that a Chipotle tomato was not harvested by slave labor. Chipotle has said that they will pay the extra wage to the workers and only purchase tomatoes from appropriate producers, but to date, they refuse to sign a Fair Food Agreement, thereby refusing to commit to transparency, accountability and third-party monitoring to assure their actions match their commitments.
The process of true repentance demands not only a verbal pronouncement of the offense, but among other things, a commitment to assure that the offense will not be committed again. We can all engage in this process by strongly encouraging Chipotle to take the next step and sign on to the Fair Food Agreement. You can do this by taking a letter to the manager of your local franchise or clicking here for information. Among the countless Jewish teachings mandating fair treatment for the slave and other disenfranchised among us, Deuteronomy 24:14 commands: "You shall not abuse a needy and destitute laborer, whether a fellow countryman or a stranger in one of the communities of your land."
Whether grounded in the teachings that have carried the Jewish people over the millennia or from the values written down by Abraham Lincoln a century and half ago, the ideal of freedom for all is still one to which we must not only aspire, but for which we are responsible in assuring is made fully real.
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