MAXWELL:  A fair shake for the state’s farm workers

2/14/1999 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


Since the feds won’t, Florida could take the lead in seeing that farm workers get a fighting chance.

We’re not human beings; we’re just a pair of hands.

_ a Ruskin tomato picker

The history of farm labor in Florida is a chronicle of human exploitation that our government has sanctioned.

Although we read and hear the sensational stories about abusive crew leaders, pesticide and other chemical poisonings, poor housing and inadequate health care and child labor abuses, we rarely understand the root cause of the misery, especially the abject poverty, among farm workers. Even more rarely _ except for ineffective attempts at moral suasion _ do farm worker advocates and labor officials articulate viable solutions for these conditions.

The unfortunate truth is that moral arguments on behalf of farm workers carry little, if any, weight with politicians and average Floridians who demand inexpensive, fresh, unblemished produce.

What, then, is the root cause of the perpetual poverty among Florida farm workers? In her book, The Fruits of Their Labor, Cindy Hahamovitch, assistant professor of history at the College of William and Mary, offers what most farm worker advocates believe is an accurate explanation.

“Conditions remain dismal . . . not because poverty is an inevitable feature of modern agriculture or because crew leaders trap migrants into a new sort of debt peonage,” Hahamovitch writes. “They are dismal because the federal government intervened on behalf of growers, undermining farm workers’ bargaining power and relieving growers of the need to recruit labor by improving wages and conditions.”

If Hahamovitch is right in identifying the major problem, then the federal government can improve the plight of farm workers by not automatically intervening for growers when labor problems need to be fixed or when such fixes will cost growers money. Moreover, the federal government can change the life of farm workers overnight by committing the ultimate act of legislative common sense: Give farm workers the right to bargain collectively.

But growers do not want farm workers to organize _ and never have. To assist growers in keeping their workers powerless, Congress excluded farm workers from the Wagner Act, the National Labor Relations Act, the National Labor Relations Board, the Fair Labor Standards Act and other labor legislation and panels.

Taking its cue from the federal government, Florida has also dismissed the rights of farm workers. With yearly agricultural cash receipts exceeding $6-billion, Florida has a long history of abusing farm workers. The state has been featured in documentaries on the subject of farm worker abuse, and Immokalee and Belle Glade had leading roles in Edward R. Murrow’s famed and graphic TV documentary Harvest of Shame.

Since the federal government seems incapable of protecting farm workers, Florida must take the lead in establishing appropriate legislation and regulations. With the leadership of Jeb Bush, the state’s new governor, the Sunshine State can make a fresh start in farm worker affairs. During the recent gubernatorial campaign, Bush met with a group of farm workers in Immokalee and listened to their concerns. Hope ran high that the governor would be an ally.

Indeed, Bush can use his office, and the Republican-led Legislature can use its authority, to begin to rescue the state’s thousands of farm workers from lives of subsistence and desperation.

As was done in California, Florida could establish its own labor relations act that spells out the specific rights of farm workers and the duties of growers. At the same time, a labor relations board that includes farm worker representatives would be established. The governor would appoint the members of the board, and the body would report directly to the governor. This would not be a rubber-stamping agency in bed with the growers but one that makes viable recommendations. Although the jury is still out on the effectiveness of the California experiment, farm workers there believe that the board and the labor relations act have at least given them an official forum for making their case.

Such a board and act are necessary in Florida because the state Department of Labor, which is supposed to protect farm workers, actually protects growers, and the state Department of Agriculture also protects growers. No government department takes an activist stance for farm workers.

A cornerstone of the labor relations act would be the right to bargain collectively. Without the ability to organize, farm workers cannot galvanize their interests and demand a seat at the negotiating table. Left on their own, growers will continue to ignore the rights of their workers.

Under collective bargaining, both sides _ labor and management _ get the opportunity to understand the economics of the business. In this way, neither party can prevail in making unreasonable demands. Growers, holding the trump card, would be required to provide accurate cost-side and market-price-side data to farm worker representatives.

As matters stand, workers never see management face-to-face and, therefore, do not understand the economics of the industry. In fact, the overwhelming majority of Florida growers refuse to talk with farm workers, especially the rank and file, for any reason.

After a labor act is passed, which gives farm workers the right to organize, and a labor board is appointed, the governor and lawmakers could take steps to implement a living wage agreement for farm workers. An independent panel of experts could determine what the living wage is for, say, a single male, a family of three, a family of four. Today, the median income for agricultural workers, married or not, is between $7,500 and $10,000 a year _ hardly a living wage under any circumstances for anyone.

Next, the panel could determine if growers can afford to pay their workers a living wage. Tomato growers claim, for example, that because of the North American Free Trade Agreement, bad weather and other problems, they cannot afford to raise the piece rate for their pickers. Objectively analyzed data would reveal if growers could afford to pay more. If the data show that growers can pay more, they would be forced to. If they cannot afford more, then the state would find another way to fairly compensate farm workers. Such an agreement already has the backing of former state Rep. Keith Arnold of Lee County and religious leaders.

The next issue also is related to wages, and the governor and lawmakers need to examine it closely, because it goes to the heart of the inequitable treatment of farm workers. Legal services attorneys statewide claim that many growers routinely cheat their laborers by “doctoring” their hours.

Jack M. Berry Inc. and its subsidiary, Eagle Lake Harvesting Corp., have been hauled into court on more than one occasion for doctoring hours, a practice that lets growers avoid paying minimum wage. Most recently, the company was in court last May for doctoring hours between 1991 and 1994. The charge was filed in a class action lawsuit involving nearly 4,000 workers.

Here is how the scheme works: Growers have established a mythic harvesting standard for each crop. In oranges, for example, the average worker should pick one bin an hour, which would amount to minimum wage on the piece rate scale. If the grove has an exceptional yield, some workers will pick more than a bin an hour.

In a grove of medium yield, most workers may pick a bin an hour. In poor groves, however, even the best pickers will have trouble picking a bin an hour. During the time in question in the lawsuit, the prevailing arrangement paid workers between $6.50 and $7.50 per bin. A worker who could pick a bin in an hour to an hour-and-a-half would earn more than minimum wage at the time _ $4.25 an hour.

If, however, workers take too much more time to fill a bin, the average wage would fall below the federal standard. The company was supposed to make up the difference. But the plaintiffs contended that company supervisors and office staff intentionally understated the farm workers’ hours, which were as high as 10 in a day, to reduce or eliminate any subsidy to the piece rate.

During the May trial, two former Berry managers admitted that company officials had instructed them to doctor hours. Furthermore, several workers said they were fired after complaining to Berry that they were not paid minimum wage and that the company refused to pay some incentive bonuses. Berry officials denied these claims.

No new state law is necessary with regard to doctoring hours, because minimum wage is the law of the land. What is needed _ and state lawmakers can take action immediately _ are penalties to make the practice too costly to risk. Florida could devise a regulation that increases the penalties beyond those in the Fair Labor Standards Act, which requires guilty growers not only to bring current wages up to speed but to double wages during the period in question.

Because so few attorneys are willing to represent farm workers against agribusiness, growers are rarely sued and are able to drag out the trials long after many plaintiffs have died or moved away. Doctoring hours, then, makes good business sense, legal services attorneys say. Again, as part of a living wage agreement, the governor could include huge penalties that would make cheating workers cost prohibitive.

Thousands of workers are also cheated out of their wages _ from 10 to 20 percent _ through a system called “bin heaping,” a practice that can be prevented with uncompromisingly harsh penalties.

Here is how bin heaping works in citrus: Florida statutes establish the volume and weight of a bin. For example, a bin of oranges should contain no more than 10 boxes, which permits three inches of what is called “head space” at the top of the bin.

But many growers force pickers to dump 11 or 12 boxes into each bin. The crime is that the pickers only get paid by the bin, not by the box. Therefore, pickers are paid for the statutory 10 boxes that go into a bin. The grower profits on the extra one or two boxes that are heaped. In a year, a grower can pocket vast sums on the backs of their pickers.

Incidentally, a Berry corporate brochure shows five men picking oranges. Each of the six bins in the slick photograph has been heaped beyond the legal head space.

Although some growers, such as Taylor & Fulton Inc. and Duda and Sons, try to provide decent dwellings for most of their workers, housing is yet another area where legislators could act immediately on behalf of farm workers. In towns such as Belle Glade, Fort Pierce, Hastings, La Belle, Immokalee, Indiantown and Ruskin, many laborers, most of them single men from Mexico, Guatemala, Jamaica and Haiti, pay $35 a week for a “slot.” A “slot” is a cot, a bed or a mattress on the floor in a run-down trailer that as many as 10 workers share. To their credit, some growers and officials in Immokalee are providing decent housing for many families.

Passing legislation and regulations is not enough, though. The governor and legislators must also allocate enough money to put inspectors in the fields who will investigate conditions, who will, for example, check workers’ pay stubs to see if the proper piece rate has been paid.

Now is the time to act decisively and vigorously on behalf of those who plant, nurture and harvest our bounty. After all, Floridians, like other Americans, eat the safest and most inexpensive fruits and vegetables in the world.

Nothing will change for farm workers, though, if ordinary Floridians _ who influence how elected officials vote _ do not change their attitudes toward farm work, says Steve Hitov, managing attorney in the Lakeland office of Florida Rural Legal Services and counsel for the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. “People need to begin to see farm work as a real job,” he says. “The days of family farms and neighborhood pickers are gone. Every grower in the Immokalee tomato dispute, for instance, is a corporation. All the pickers pick for a living, not for extra money. Once you see it as a job, there is no justification for treating people who do farm work for a living any differently than you treat a person who punches a clock, goes into a factory, makes auto parts, punches the clock at the end of the day and goes home to a modicum of respect.”

Farm workers’ rights?

Many of the rights that other workers take for granted in the United States do not apply to farm workers, especially to migrants. Because pickers have no rights to advocate on their own behalf, laws are geared almost entirely toward industry interests _ often large corporations with powerful Washington lobbies.

According to the OxFam America Project, a farm-worker advocacy organization:

+ Farm work is classified as one of the most dangerous jobs in the country _ with a high incidence of related disabilities and accidents on the job. Yet few workers have health insurance, and many states do not provide workers’ compensation.

+ Agriculture uses more pesticides than any other industry, yet laws protecting workers are almost non-existent. Pesticide exposure and the resulting health complications are among the most serious problems facing farm worker communities.

+ Farm work is the second-worst paying job in the country _ second only to domestic work.

+ Migrant farm workers are not covered under the Labor Relations Act, leaving them without the right to form a union and negotiate collectively.

+ Pickers are generally paid on a per-piece basis and rarely earn minimum wage. For most crops, per-piece payment has not increased in a decade.

+ In 1987, farm workers won the right to have drinking water and washing water, as well as bathroom facilities, in their workplace. Lack of compliance with the law, however, is widespread.