MAXWELL:  The feds come to the fields

4/26/1998 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


U.S. Labor Secretary Alexis Herman and Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman came here, 30 miles south of Miami where most of the nation’s winter vegetables and exotic fruit are grown, to investigate reports of poor conditions under which Florida farm workers struggle.

Here to save face, Herman and Glickman seemed out of place walking through rows of zucchini and yellow squash. They appeared apprehensive touring migrant housing, buffoonish playing with toddlers in a day care center.

The White House duo came because a tomato boycott and a 30-day hunger strike, carried out earlier this year by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, drew international attention to Florida’s continuing harvest of shame.

Why were a boycott and the electronic images of starving men needed to remind Herman and Glickman that, in addition to looking after the welfare of growers, they are legally _ and ethically _ obligated to protect farm workers?

The two Cabinet members are the highest-ranking federal officials to visit the Sunshine State in the interest of farm workers since then-Labor Secretary Elizabeth Dole did so in 1990. Eight years after Dole’s visit, Herman and Glickman saw many of the same conditions during their 24-hour tour. Some conditions, each secretary acknowledged, have worsened.

Like Dole, Herman focused on reports about young children working as field hands. “What we have to make sure of,” she said, “is that our children have the ability to do homework _ and not farm work.”

Herman has good reason to worry. According to state and federal investigators, child labor abuses are making a comeback. An Associated Press reporter said that, in a single day, for example, he observed eight underage children picking beans on a nearby farm. On any given day, children can be found in fields throughout Florida. Farm worker advocates claim to have seen children as young as 4 years old picking in fields.

Why are children working as field hands?

Jorge Fuentes, a 22-year-old Mexican who earns $165 a week, had an answer that is shared by most farm workers: “We have no choice but to bring our kids with us to the fields. My 7-year-old son has to work. We have two younger kids. We have to feed them. If we got more money for our work, our son wouldn’t have to go to the fields.”

According to a statement that Herman and Glickman jointly released, President Clinton is trying to find $5-million to hire 36 more agents to investigate and enforce child labor laws and to establish a registry to collect data on child labor and farm work. Although this is a welcome move, it will produce few benefits if wages remain low.

To their credit, both secretaries will provide money for programs to help improve the lives of farm workers. For instance, Herman unveiled a $12-million plan to renovate several buildings at Homestead Air Reserve Base for a Job Corps. And Glickman announced that his agency will allocate $17.7-million to build 196 housing units in a development constructed after hurricane Andrew.

While praising Herman and Glickman for visiting South Florida, organizers of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers worry that Beltway bureaucrats do not fully understand the seriousness of farm worker problems, especially those of tomato pickers on Florida’s west coast. Their income has remained stagnant for the last 20 years, while the cost of living has nearly doubled in that period.

“In any other industry, conditions like these would have brought about some form of concerted action for reform _ either by industry leaders themselves shamed into action, or by government officials moved to bring their own weight to bear on the problems,” coalition spokesman Lucas Benitez said in a prepared statement at the meeting with the secretaries.

“When reports of similar abuses began to trickle out about the sweatshops of New York last year, where, for example, workers toiled in outrageous conditions to produce a line of clothing endorsed by Kathie Lee Gifford, the response was swift and strong. With only minimum prodding, Kathie Lee joined with government officials to lend new momentum to a compaign to expose and eliminate such abuses in the garment industry. Florida agriculture, on the other hand, continues to react to reports of abuse with silence.”

Benitez and other coalition workers recognize the real problem in Florida agriculture. “Only by making the worker/grower relationship more modern and more human can we make the conditions that we as workers face in the fields more modern and more humane,” he said. “That relationship is the root of our problems, and that relationship has to be the root of any possible change.”

Benitez hopes that because the White House is showing interest in farm worker problems, Florida’s Republican-controlled Legislature will begin to see farm workers in a more positive light.

“At least the secretaries of labor and agriculture said that they must not only be for the growers but for the farm workers, too,” Benitez said. “This shows that they are thinking about our problems on a higher level. Clearly, if our voices are reaching the White House, then how can it be that the politicians in Florida won’t pay more attention to this very important issue?”

Florida legislators, nearly all of them captives of agricultural lobbyists, have a long history of snubbing farm workers. As pragmatists who have spent many years in Florida’s labor battles, veteran farm worker advocates are taking a wait-and-see posture. Interest from the White House may not faze elected officials here _ not a whit.