MAXWELL:  We harm the hands that feed us

4/14/1996 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


If Edward R. Murrow were alive to update Harvest of Shame, his 1961 film documentary that graphically depicted the institutionalized degradation of the nation’s migrant farm workers, Florida again would be featured as one the most abusive states.

Now as then, most of Florida’s agricultural workers, today between 300,000 to 436,000, live in squalid conditions, toil in toxic and other dangerous environments, earn intolerably low wages and endure the wrath of a spoiled consumer public. Because most farm workers are nomadic and speak a foreign language, they remain disenfranchised and isolated from mainstream America.

Two ongoing situations show that the Sunshine State, like the rest of the nation, is hostile toward agricultural workers _ the very people we depend on to feed us.

State Rep. Carl Littlefield, R-Dade City, has introduced a cynical bill mandating that county health departments inspect migrant rental housing no more than one time a year. Current law requires the state Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services to inspect occupied migrant units, mobile homes and houses, two times each quarter, which adds up to five visits per year to each labor compound.

Littlefield claims, of course, that less is better, that the new policy would benefit farm workers because HRS, through county health agencies, would be able to increase the number of inspections in response to the number of specific complaints logged.

Hogwash! The senator knows that farm workers, as a group, are not litigious and do not complain often. Littlefield’s district, covering part of Hillsborough County, is home to many farms, some rich and some not so rich. The legislation will produce at least two results: First, it will take the heat off abusive farmers and their crew chiefs who operate substandard housing. Second, it will save money. Littlefield, if his bill is evidence, discounts the welfare of the thousands of farm hands in his district and simply wants to cut the state budget.

By inspecting Florida’s 700 migrant camps only once a year, officials could save as much as $84,000 annually. The savings, however, are not worth the potential abuses that migrant farm workers will face.

Littlefield is not the only enemy of farm workers. In Quincy, about 30 miles west of Tallahassee, the owners of Quincy Farms, the producer of Prime label mushrooms, have fired 84 Mexican and Salvadoran workers. Trouble started on March 14, when 24 workers were arrested on charges of trespassing on company property while protesting at the packing house during a lunch break.

The protesters, all pickers, want the company to negotiate a contract with the United Farm Workers union. And well they should. The average weekly wage for pickers ranges from $180 to $270. Of equal concern are job safety and security, a pension plan, medical insurance, housing, a grievance procedure and personal treatment from supervisors.

Quincy Farms, like many other growers in Florida, has a bad reputation in farm labor circles. Daniel Martinez, a 32-year-old picker, said through an interpreter that most workers are afraid of their supervisors. “They don’t respect us,” he said. “They scream at you. If you stand up for your rights, they take you to the office and treat you like a child. I am not a child. I am married and have two young boys.”

Other workers report that when they ask for raises or complain about working conditions, they are threatened with firing.

Some of the most serious abuse occurs during requests for health care, especially treatment for injuries and ailments that occur on the job or because of job-related conditions. Farm labor advocates say that workers who need medical attention first must sign documents absolving the company of any responsibility for the accident before treatment is started. The company doctor, pickers say, often does not take their injuries seriously and sends them back to work too soon.

Many workers complain, too, that they never have been informed about the harmful effects of pesticide exposure as required by law. Workers also must buy protective gear and clothing from the company store, this despite company claims that these items are distributed free of charge. In a faxed news release, Quincy Farms denies all of the pickers’ allegations.

Conditions like these reported at Quincy Farms occur in the shadow of the Capitol because many Florida legislators are in bed with the growers. Furthermore, most farmers and their crew bosses scoff at the 1982 federal Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Protection Act. Specifically, this measure requires employers to register with the government and to display their certificate of registration; provide sanitary housing; pay fair wages on time; make accurate social security deductions; and provide safe work-related transportation.

Because these and other guidelines too often are not enforced, hundreds of farm workers are needlessly injured each year, and some are killed.

The issues at Quincy Farms and elsewhere in Florida are not labor issues. These are issues of human decency and dignity. When farm hands are hired, they should be paid fairly, offered adequate benefits and provided with decent housing and safe transportation. Why must farm workers, those who gather our food, beg for the very rights the rest of us take for granted?