Holy day tomato symbolizes 'enslaved' farm workers

Food serves as a symbol during many holy days, especially in the spring.  The eggs of Easter, can symbolize the renewal of life, of rebirth, and the sun.

The Seder plate of Passover is also rife with symbols.  The traditional bitter herbs, charoset, parsley, shank bone and eggs, each has its place in telling the story of the liberation of Jewish people from slavery in Egypt thousands of years ago.

At the service held at St. Lawrence University Monday evening, Rabbi Dr. Michael Greenwald explained that in the past year some Jews have added a tomato to the Seder plate.

The new addition is a symbol of contemporary slavery, particularly what some Rabbis consider the slavery of U.S. tomato pickers.

Members of a New York-based organization called Rabbis for Human Rights-North America visited  tomato-growing regions of  Florida last year.  They said they met with often-underpaid and overworked tomato pickers, in near-slavery conditions.

The Rabbis took a variety of actions, among them, inviting people to add a tomato to the Seder plate, as a symbol and reminder of the farm worker who picked it.

“It’s just obvious to me,” California-based Rabbi Paula Marcus wrote in San Francisco’s jweekly newspaper. “We imagine what it was like to be slaves and celebrate our freedom."  She went on, “But the truth is, there are people in our own country who don’t have to imagine what it is like to be a slave.”

When United States Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack started hosting a Food and Justice Passover Seder a couple of years ago.  Last year, he also added a tomato to the plate.  A USDA blog says it was to draw attention to the plight of day laborers, and to “… the themes of hunger, access to healthy food, sustainable food production, and fair treatment for farm workers."

Now the question is, will these symbolic gestures make any difference to the people living in these conditions?


  1. Whereas the article focuses upon the farm workers in Florida the problem exists throughout the US. To this point I ask:

    Can or will anyone in the North Country with knowledge of how well, or not, the south of the border, predominantly out-of-sight, farm laborers who work the super sized dairy farms in our area are treated and elucidate the rest of us with the details of: 1. their living accommodations (families or not), apartments, open barracks something in between? 2. days/week and hours/day they work? 3. compensation they receive by the hour/week/month? 4. how much they are charged for on the farm living accommodations and the conditions of such living accommodations? 5. how much they are charged for food, clothing, washing (for themselves and their clothing), heating/cooling? 6. what access do they have to health care for dental, injuries and illness and who pays for it if they have it? 7. social life? 8. travel to shopping and entertainment? 9. if access to amenities such as TV with cable/satellite are afforded what are they charged per individual or family? 10. with the inordinately high unemployment levels in the North Country what reasons, other than to increase their profits and ensure worker compliance with their directives, do super size farmers have such that they believe they are justified to import legal, quasi-legal and possibly illegal workers to the area?

    • Total crap. I am insulted by your assumption that immigrants are mistreated on our farms. It shows total ignorance of reality. I will answer your questions with respect to my workers situation one by one. By the way, Everyone who works on my farm is on payroll, paying taxes, having shown documentation consistent with the requirements of the I9 form.
      1. They live in a house, with individual bedrooms and a common kitchen, dining, and living room areas.
      2. They work 6 days per week, with 1 day off. The hours vary because they do some single and some double shifts, but the total hours come to around 60 hours per week.
      3. I would rather not be exact with my compensation packages but I will say that compensation for a worker with the above referred to hours would make between 25000 and 35000 based on experience and skills.
      4. Our farm charges no housing assessment.
      5. Our farm charges no food, clothing or washing.
      6. They have the same access as anyone to health care. They are covered by workers compensation for on the job injuries and pay other expenses from their insurance or income, whichever applies.
      7. Their social life is whatever they make it. They are very big on holidays, and often invite their bosses and coworkers to meals and parties on holidays or birthdays
      8. Travel and entertainment? This is one which they don't seem to have much interest in. They are here to work, and we do the necessary shopping for them to save time. We charge them nothing for this service.
      9. They have the Spanish satellite package from Dish network. They are not charged for this, it is provided as an additional benefit to their salary. The same is true with phone service.
      10. We have 30 employees and 6 of them are Hispanic. We use Hispanics to fill the evening and night milking positions which we have had difficulty filling with local people who will be there every night. The rest of our labor force is local people who do a very good job. There is however, a place for people who wish to put in a few years of hard work to vastly better their families in another country.
      This issue is not as simple as it first appears to you. I think you would find that most of the workers on large farms in this area are happy to be here and consider themselves to be fairly compensated for their work. And I think that you would find most employers to genuinely care for their employees, no matter which country they came from originally.

      • Well written!

  2. In the 1970's i worked as a picker. it's really good work, it can be labor
    intensive,but i was paid enough to make my way. the idea of enslaved workers just ain't so? you could earn over $100 a day picking apples if you where good(remember the wages in the 70's?)
    i've seen plenty of workers driving new trucks, many people chose to work construction,and other jobs,or just about any job you or i could find? part time work for manpower, in texas there where more imigrants than
    native born americans. they always had work.
    the idea of enslaved farm workers,unpaid and living in slums, it's
    just a lie. the day of under paid workers ended years ago.

  3. AS, To paraphrase the Bard “me think thou doth protest too much” I understand not why you are taking umbrage about the, in your words, “total crap” that I wrote where in I requested someone in the “know” answer a few questions that I, and I would imagine others, have concerning the propensity of local super size farmers to be climbing onto the imported labor wagon that I first became aware of when I was stationed in California back in the late 60's. It appears, on the face of your responses, that you are doing right by your employees and by your assertion primarily hiring local folks to work at your farm.

    The last time I worked on a farm, that I did not own, was the Summer of 1960, I was 17 YO and had just graduated from Potsdam High. There were the owner his three (3) sons and the wife of one of the sons plus three (3) summer hires about my same age. We 3 were hired primarily to help put up hay and field chopped grass ensilage; however, we ended up milking twice a day as well. This was before the concept of milking parlors had caught on and we were milking about 240-250 cows between their two separated farms as well as putting up crops . So there were 8 of us counting the pregnant wife (she primarily milked at the farm where they lived). We were working from 0500 to about 2200hrs 6 days/week, or about 100 hrs/week provided food and lodging (a free standing building with beds; but, no water, electricity or heat) and what “they” considered a generous $50/week paycheck! So I applaud you for only working your help a little more than half of what we were worked and providing all of the amenities in life that we were not; however, to quote another aphorism “the devil is in the details”.

    I was not familiar with the I9 EEV form so I went to the internet to ascertain what it was. From what I read in this article – http://www.watertowndailytimes.com/article/20110424/NEWS03/304249994 – from the Watertown Daily Times it would appear to me that the I9 is not worth much more than the paper it is printed upon. From the article I quote "Yet farmers by law are not permitted to ask questions about a potential employee's work legality." I take that to mean that farmers are not authorized to attempt to determine the validity or not of the documents provided that purport to demonstrate a non US citizen is authorized to work legally within the US. Any ideas or guesses as to why the law is so strangely written? If you are interested in my estimation just inquire of me and I'll let know.

    I don't want quibble but your implication that you have addressed my questions with non specific, convoluted and contradictory answers leaves me with no recourse:

    1. You claim to have only 6 "Hispanics" working for you by which I assume you are referring to currently in your employ this Winter; what about Spring, Summer and Fall during the planting and harvesting seasons do you hire more then?
    2. Whom are the "they" who live in the communal housing, all of your employees, some of your employees, US and non US citizens or only the non US citizens?
    3. Since you don't want to be exact with respect to your "compensation packages" I am duty bound to inquire whether you calculate the compensation for the non US citizens differently than for the US citizens working for you? Let me be precise, what I am asking is: “do you pay the non US citizens and the US citizens who work the identical number of hrs/wk doing the identical job at the same hourly pay scale such that at the end of the pay period when all required taxes are taken out of each ones pay is the net pay to the US citizen and the the net pay to the non US citizen the same”? If not why not?
    4. You claim that "they", I assume you are referring to the 24 US citizens plus the 6 non US citizens as a group, work about 60 hours each week. Here is another straight forward question; “do the non US citizens work longer hrs/wk/day than the US citizens”? An average of 60 hrs/wk for 30 workers is a total of 1800 hrs/wk which if the 24 US citizens worked say an average of 55 hrs/wk would mean that the 6 non US citizen workers would work an average of “80 hrs/wk”. (55hrs*24USwkrs) = 1320 USwkrhrs and (1800-1320)= 480 non USwkrhrs therefore 480/6=80 hrs/wk the average non USwkr would work. What this simple arithmetic calculation illustrates is how easily a relatively small average difference in the larger sub group of workers hrs/wk can significantly affect the average hrs/wk worked by the smaller sub group.
    5. Let us assume that everyone works 60 hrs/week for you. In the "real world", of which you state I am “ignorant”, folks who work for hourly wages get 1.5 times their hourly rate for hours worked above 40 hr/wk, as provide for under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) . Therefore, if we use X to represent hourly wages paid, the effective hourly wages paid to your employees can be calculated by using a first year high school algebra equation 52wks(40hrsX+(1.5*20hrs)X)=$25000 or 52wks*70hrsX=$25000 or X=$25000/3640hrs thus X=$6.87/hr and if we did the same calculation using $35000 we arrive at $9.62/hr. The (1.5*20hrs=30hrs) obviously represents the “overtime pay” workers in the “real world” would be entitled to at the regular hourly rate of pay. From this simple calculation we observe that your lowest paid employee's receive $6.87/hr and your highest $9.62/hr. Are those close to the salary numbers you used when you sat down to calculate the “compensation packages” which you prefer to not be exact about? How many of the non US citizens you employ are compensated, in actual dollars, calculated by multiplying the hourly rate you are paying them times the actual hours they work or is the amount they are paid so much a week/month and they work whatever hours are required to got all of the work you deem necessary completed?
    6. You state “they have the same access as anyone to health care. They are covered by workers compensation for on the job injuries and pay other expenses from their insurance or income, whichever applies.” How many of your non US employees have “Health Care Insurance”? How many of your US employees have “Health Care Insurance”? Do you have a health care plan that your employees can participate in wherein you cover a major portion of the cost of the plan and if you do, do you consider the dollars you input into their health plans as part of the $25-$35thousand compensation packages you do not want to be specific about?
    7. You assert that you provide “free” housing, food, clothing, cleaning satellite TV, phone, electricity?, and you even shop for them so they do not have to take time off to do their own. Here is another straight forward question do you provide the non US citizens and the US citizens with the same package of extras? If you do, do you consider the worth of these “free” services as a portion of the “compensation” packages you are not inclined to be exact about?
    8. You state “their social life is whatever they make it. They are very big on holidays, and often invite their bosses and coworkers to meals and parties on holidays or birthdays.” What I was attempting to ascertain, with my clumsy question, was whether they have their families with them because being with one's family and close friends is what the normal concept of socializing includes.
    9. In as much as you give short shrift to: “Travel and entertainment? This is one which they don't seem to have much interest in. They are here to work, and we do the necessary shopping for them to save time. We charge them nothing for this service.” Does this concept include the US citizens who work for you also?
    10. Although you attempt to disarm my questions by contenting that you have 4 times as many US citizens working for you as you have non US citizens the sense I gain from your answers is that the employees you are describing in said answers concern primarily the non US citizens. Is this true or am I reading into your answers something you did not intend?

    You say: “ We use Hispanics to fill the evening and night milking positions which we have had difficulty filling with local people who will be there every night.” How is it possible for 6 non citizens to cover two working periods while the 24 citizens cover the one daytime work period and yet they all work the same number of hours per week? Based upon your quoted statement it would appear that the non citizens would likely work 12 hours or more each and every day and the US citizens work the other half of the day, more or less, on a rotating basis. How do the non citizens get a day off if you need them to milk every evening and night because you can't find enough locals who will be available for work every night. How is is that the non US citizens are only working the same average hours as the average for all 30 of your employees in light of “your own descriptive words”. If we accept your word that the non US citizens work only 60 hours per week, since they are predominately working the evening and night shift, under FLSA rules, they would be eligible for a10-20% differential pay in addition to their regular hourly rate. Therefore based upon your estimated $25 to $35 thousand compensation package the hourly rates estimated above would require additional downward adjustment. How about we split the difference between 10 and 20 and use 15% for the differential. Same X again so (X+.15X)=$6.87 or X=$6.87/1.15 or X=$5.97/hr @$25,000 and X=$9.62/1.15 or X=$8.37/hr @$35,000 for the effective hourly salary you are effectively paying the evening and night workers at, the lowest $5.97 and the highest $8.37. I find it highly unlikely that you performed any computations, such as these in my comments to your comments, to establish the hourly wage you are paying your employees and likewise I have not much truck with your claim as to the value of the compensation packages you do not wish to disclose the details of.

    I do not disagree with your contention that the non citizens are able to earn significantly more in the US than in their home countries, wherever they are from. Further I agree that they are likely glad to be here; however, I doubt that they are any more glad to be here than the farmers here are to have them. Unless you live a monastic existence and shun all connection to the outside world there is no possible way you can not be aware of the LARGE/LOUD CONVERSATIONS taking place throughout the USA concerning the use of quasi-legal and illegal non US citizens, working throughout the agricultural and food processing industries in this country. A couple of years ago the Georgia state government passed state laws which required farmers to ensure the validity of their workers papers. In a New York minute the state of Georgia was losing crop picking workers and one could hear the wailing of the Georgian farmers all the way up here. In as much as the screaming of the GA farmers has subsided somewhat of late, my guess is that the distressful laws remain on the books so that the appearance of “being tough” is upheld but in actuality the “enforcement” of such laws are winked at just as the I9 statute you brought to my attention obviously is. If you are interested here are a couple of the millions of links to such articles – http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/06/14/georgia-immigration-farms-pobation_n_877089.htmlhttp://www.huffingtonpost.com/azadeh-shahshahani/georgia-immigration-law_b_1374333.html about same.

    By the way the I9 statute is obviously written as it is, so as, to enable agricultural interests to “utilize” quasi-legal and illegal non US citizens, so as, to greatly enhance their profits and simultaneously shield them from the purported intent of the law.

    • I answered your questions entirely factually, and I apologize if it does not fit your preconceived notions of how we treat our help. I will clarify a few points.
      You asked about immigrants, therefore I responded with respect to immigrants, not local employees. The hours and pay rates I gave were for my non native labor. In general local employees work less hours, and make correspondingly less total money. The 25k-35k range that I gave you was for my hispanic workers. This is what I pay them. Housing and the other benefits are in addition to this. 25000 by 52 weeks is 480. 480 by 60 hours is 8 dollars per hour. Plus housing , Dish and telephone. Agriculture does not have pay overtime, regardless of country of origin. This level is lower than the low end of our pay scale.
      As to your question on number of hispanics and shifts: There are more jobs than milking on our farms. The feeding, crops and cow care are done mostly by local employees. That is how I can have 6 Hispanics and 24 others. I will grant that 5 or so of my local guys are part time truck drivers, but that still leaves almost 20 year round milkers, feeders, mechanics and herdsmen.
      I will repeat to you, we are not abusing this system, we are merely trying to compete in a complicated world.
      I can assure you that I really care about all of my employees, and want to meet their needs as much as I can. My offense was taken at the assumption that we take advantage of immigrants just to make more money. I doubt we will agree totally on this issue, but I want you to understand that we are trying to work with an imperfect system, and still do the right thing for ALL of our workers.

  4. AS, I have no preconceived notions about how you treat your help; primarily, because I have no idea who or where you are.

    You may believe that you have "factually" answered my questions; however, I respectfully disagree with that contention because you are limiting your answers to only the questions which you want to answer.

    You are correct I did ask about "south of the border, predominantly out-of-sight, farm laborers"; however you are the one who brought the composition of your work force into your responses to my questions and then failed to clearly define who you were talking about throughout the remainder of your responses.

    You state: "Agriculture does not have(sic) pay overtime, regardless of country of origin. This level is lower than the low end of our pay scale." I understand what the first sentence means but I have no idea what the second sentence means. In as much as I have no first hand experience with the Fair Labor Standards Act I went to the US Department of Labor Web page and quickly located the following information:

    "The following are examples of employees exempt from both the minimum wage and overtime pay requirements (I selected the example I found to be the appropriate one from the list that followed):"

    "Farm workers employed on small farms (i.e., those that used less than 500 "man‑days" of farm labor in any calendar quarter of the preceding calendar year)"

    An additional Google search brought me to this definition of a man-day:

    "A man-day is defined as “one person's working time for a day, or the equivalent, used as a measure of how much work or labor is required or consumed to perform some task “

    From the FLSA definition the only way farmers are exempt from following the rules about over time pay is if you use less than 500 man-days of hired labor per quarter of a year; therefore: 52/4=13 weeks*7days*30hired laborers=2730 man days of labor used on your farm per quarter. Let's see 2730/500=5.46 I am afraid that according to the US Department of Labor your farming operation FAILS to meet the 500 man-day per quarter test to allow you to NOT pay over time by almost 6 times (5.46 times to be exact). Reducing your employee level by the part time workers is I believe a nonstarter since the man-day definition does not specify a minimum number of hours the man has to work. It therefore appears that you are indeed required to pay over time by the requirements of FLSA.

    You purport, that your statements which follow answer my question about how it is, that by your very own statements, 6 Hispanics can work evening and nights (possibly every day of the week "my surmise") milking and still work only 60hrs/wk, thus: "As to your question on number of hispanics and shifts: There are more jobs than milking on our farms. The feeding, crops and cow care are done mostly by local employees. That is how I can have 6 Hispanics and 24 others. I will grant that 5 or so of my local guys are part time truck drivers, but that still leaves almost 20 year round milkers, feeders, mechanics and herdsmen." Do you not recognize the disconnect here? I previously stated that I have owned more than one farm and worked on farms when I was young and you apparently believe that explaining to me about some of what it takes to run a farm answers the question I posed about the total hours your Hispanic milkers put in per week.

    I am at a loss when it comes to attempting to comprehend what the "imperfect" system which you claim to not be abusing refers to.

    I applaud you if you are indeed treating your Hispanic employees as equals to your US employees; however, the vagueness of the answers you provided for the questions you deigned to answer does not leave me overflowing with confidence about it. Yours is but one super size farm (out of how many in the North Country?) and no others have volunteered any information about their operations, any ideas as to why the silence?

    • I assure you, I am following labor laws. You can disagree with my way of farming if you want to, but we are very careful to get the information of what is required from experts in farm and labor law to ensure that we meet the legal requirements.
      I would guess that many businesses, farms or not, would be hesitant to be even as forthcoming with internal business information as I have been, especially on the internet. The only question which I did not answer directly was the specific numbers of employee pay. This is partly for privacy and partly because every person is different in terms of compensation based on experience and skills.
      When I read your original question, I took some issue with the tone, but welcomed the opportunity to show someone with a different point of view that we are not all monsters with slaves who pay minimum wage and then deduct things out of that. I feel that we are being very fair with all of our employees and our turnover rate shows that they feel the same way. That is the story I wanted to tell, not get dragged into calculations and details of individual compensation agreements.
      I recognize the futility of continuing this debate here, but I would encourage you to visit one of the large farms in this area if you have the chance. There are many who produce a quality product, treat people fairly, and make a profit as well.

      • AS, Initially I overlooked your comment: "I would guess that many businesses, farms or not, would be hesitant to be even as forthcoming with internal business information as I have been, especially on the internet."

        Upon reflection about this statement, on your part, I realized that it demands a response on my part. The very concept that is contained in your statement is to condemn the methodologies employed by businesses, in that you believe that "many" businesses would not want even the miniscule amount of information which you have surrendered about your "internal business" operations to become public. It is nearly impossible to envision a more damning condemnation of business practices than to state, as you did, that most businesses intentionally withhold internal business practices information. Any chance you would deign to enlighten me as to why you think people in business think and act so secretively?

  5. AS, Waaay back in the late 70's through the 80's I was employed by the USAF as an Aero/Electronic Engineer by the Air Logistics Command (ALC Hill AFB) co-located with Strategic Air Command (SAC) at Plattsburgh AFB providing engineering support for modifications to the F/FB-111 Flight Simulators for which ALC was responsible via contracts to various aerospace contractors.

    Your purported final response to my responses to your responses jogged my enfeebled mind to recall an incident that occurred sometime in the mid 80's. Mac Air (McDonnel Douglas Aircraft (prior to their acquisition by Boeing Aircraft)Electronic Division had bid on and won a contract to upgrade the ECM simulation hardware and software used with the F/FB-111 flight simulators. In-process documentation Mac Air had been providing was causing consternation among AF personnel reviewing same such that an in-plant program review suddenly bloomed in AF participation from the usual myself and a handful of USAF users to an AF contingent nearing 50. Upon being informed of the vast numbers the AF was sending to visit, Mac Air brought out one of their heavy hitters, a vice president in their Electronic division who was in charge of the group doing the modification. He greeted us at the meeting and attempted to disarm the evident hostility by asking me to identify myself and then made a joke that everyone else could leave the room. Subsequently they started putting on their dog and pony show about the progress of the project starting with the hardware, which was not in contention. Finally the software engineers were ushered onto the stage and the AF folks became intently interested. After a few of the working level engineers presented their details their supervisor took the stage. He was deluged with questions concerning the qualms the AF had about the approach to upgrading the software, which he insistently answered by spouting the company line, that had been transmitted to the USAF on paper and had perpetrated the questions the AF had about the project progress. After he had been interrupted numerous times by pointed inquiries about his capacity to comprehend the questions being directed to him as he continued to disgorge the party line, he suddenly stopped. He looked around the crowded room and then he said, "Yes I understand what you are asking me.""Yes I and my team can re-write the software such that it will perform the way you want it to." Looking around the room again he pointed with his arm hand and finger at the Vice President in charge, who had remained conspicuously in-evidence within the room throughout the days of meeting, and said, "he won't let me". As you can likely imagine pandemonium erupted within the room and the VP quickly took the stage to enlighten the AF with his interpretation of the situation. His contention was that Mac Air had their "legal team" review the contract and the approach Mac Air was taking to perform the contract requirements and they were within the "letter of the law". Ah but the fix was simple, a mere "cost over run amendment" to the contract to pay Mac Air to do what we in the AF believed they had initially contracted to produce.

    In your approach to answering my questions it is as if you are both the software engineering supervisor and the vice president in one person. You are answering the questions, I ask, only as you wish to interpret them in accordance with the party line that you insist must be put forward to comply with your concepts of "reality" in your "true believer" role as Owner and "decision maker" of your farm. I believe you do understand the questions and are simply refusing to answer them by using the tried and true dodge I witnessed many times over in my career; presenting information that appears to and may have some validity, however, is not applicable to the questions under discussion.

    You claim that I accuse you of being a "monster" and harboring "slaves" on your farm; however, you are the only one using such language in these discussion comments. Once again I wish to point out that I have no idea who you are nor where your farm is and my questions were generic in nature, which you apparently chose to interpret as pointedly directed at you, and you initiated the in-depth discussions with me.

  6. I answered your questions factually by number because I thought you were actually interested in the facts. I will not make the same mistake again.

    • I am interested in the facts and if you would provide some "facts", not obfuscation, about the questions I asked it would be greatly appreciated.

  7. Reread my first response then.