MAXWELL:  40 cents a bucket plus free abuse

4/7/1999 – Printed in the EDITORIAL section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


Isolation and intimidation are the main tools that the owners of Six L’s Farms use to control the more than 400 workers in the company’s East Naples labor camp, say spokesmen for the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a non-profit labor advocacy organization based in Immokalee.

The barracks-style camp is in the Everglades _ 5 miles south of Alligator Alley and 7 miles east of Naples. For the overwhelming majority who do not own vehicles, the nearest store is an hour’s walk along a dusty road.

Before the coalition began showing up a few months ago, the camp did not have a telephone. Pickers were cut off from the outside world. Anyone who did not own a vehicle and who needed to make a call had to make the trek to a store on U.S. 41. Today, because of pressure from the coalition and media coverage, Six L’s owners, the Lipman brothers, have installed four pay telephones.

In addition to blocking workers from communicating by telephone, Six L’s also prevented them from having visitors at the camp. This practice went on for years, until the coalition complained to company officials and the press.

Each time pickers invited coalition representatives to the camp, the supervisors ordered the advocates off the property. When they agreed to leave, the supervisors would call the police anyway. The advocates would go to the nearest convenience store and speak with pickers in the parking lot. Recently, a supervisor accompanied by police officers followed the advocates to the store. An officer asked coalition members for identification. After they complied, the cop handed the information to the Six L’s supervisor.

A few days ago, coalition workers and a legal adviser returned to the camp at the invitation of pickers. Again, a supervisor ordered them off the property and called the police.

“The supervisor told us to get out,” said Lucas Benitez, a coalition spokesman. ” “This is my camp, and these are my people,’ he said and called the police. I told him that these are not your people. The camp may be yours, but these are not your people. People aren’t the property of anyone.”

This time, though, officers asked the pickers if they had invited the coalition. In one voice, the group shouted “yes.” The officers left, telling the supervisor that the coalition had broken no laws. Florida law states, in fact, that farm workers _ living in housing owned by growers _ must be treated as tenants with the right to have visitors in their rooms.

Six L’s has a long history of calling the police on workers who complain about abuse. “It’s an attempt to intimidate the workers,” said Greg Asbed, a coalition spokesman. “It’s a system of isolation that keeps workers divided and unorganized. As a result, Six L’s workers are the last to know that pickers in other companies got raises in the piece rate.”

Only now, after coalition persistence, have Six L’s pickers been given a raise, from 35 to 40 cents per bucket _ the industry’s lowest rate. This is the company’s first rate increase since 1979. Six L’s was the last company of the “Big Four” tomato producers in Southwest Florida not to raise pay last year. The Gargiulo company, for example, raised its rate from 40 to 50 cents per bucket following strikes in Immokalee and after talks with the coalition. After Gov. Jeb Bush intervened, Pacific Land Co. and Nobles Farms Inc. followed Gargiulo and gave 5-cent raises, from 40 to 45 cents.

Despite its raise, Six L’s refuses to follow other growers by using a variable per-bucket rate in successive picks in the same fields. Because tomatoes are less plentiful each time the same field is picked, Nobles, for example, pays 45 cents on first pick, 50 on the second and 55 on the third. Six L’s pays a 40 cents flat rate for all picks. Owners argue that they must pay the low rate because they provide free housing _ four people to a 40-square-foot room that has no air conditioning.

Yes, Six L’s provides housing, but the trade-off of lower wages for so-called free rent is a net loss for the workers, Asbed said. “The amount lost at the lower piece rate compared to workers picking for Pacific or Nobles is far more than the amount saved by living rent free at the camp,” he said. “Gargiulo also provides housing at reduced rates, yet manages to pay the highest rate of all of the large area companies.”

Even as the coalition attempts to persuade the owners of Six L’s to sit down and talk with the pickers, the intimidation and other abuses continue. “Here at Six L’s,” Asbed said, “you’re little more than a tool put into a shed overnight to be taken out in the morning to be put back to work again.”