MAXWELL: A tradition of abuse in the fields of Florida

3/26/2003 – Printed in the EDITORIAL section of The St Petersburg Times Newspaper


Now that Hispanics have become the nation’s most populous ethnic minority, a handful of Florida elected officials are paying grudging attention to how inhumanely we treat our state’s tens of thousands of migrant farm workers.

I grew up as a migrant worker and have been writing about the plight of this group for more than 15 years. I can say from experience and study that our state _ its ordinary residents and its leaders _ does not give a damn about farm workers. I even have a few colleagues at the St. Petersburg Times and, of course, dozens of regular readers, who ask why I write about “migrants so much”?

One reader admonished me: “Why don’t you tell those wet backs to get real jobs and quit complaining or go back to Mexico?” I advised him to plant his own veggies and harvest them for his family and friends. His reply is unprintable in this newspaper.

His is the typical attitude of Floridians toward migrant farm workers. We see their outlines in our fields, groves and orchards, but we rarely see their faces up close. Others of us live such insulated lives that we never see these laborers at all.

During the last legislative session, Rep. Frank Peterman, D-St. Petersburg, filed a bill on behalf of farm workers. It failed. Watching the latest census report showing the growing number of Hispanics in Florida, other legislators, including a few Republicans, have joined Peterman and farm worker advocates in trying to bring fairness to these laborers.

Specifically, the new state law would require employers to better train and inform workers to protect them from the pesticides they work in. Peterman, along with state House Majority Leader Marco Rubio, R-Miami, also wants lawmakers to have authority to go after growers when the contractors they hire cheat field hands out of wages.

Florida’s GOP-controlled Legislature is going to be a hard sell for Peterman and Rubio. During his second gubernatorial race, Gov. Jeb Bush promised farm workers represented by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers that he would listen to their concerns. He apparently had a memory lapse after the election. The governor’s farm-labor emissary even portrays the coalition as a front for the so-called “Mexican lobby.”

As a result, one of farm labor’s most vocal support groups does not have an effective voice in Tallahassee. Peterman’s legislation is needed now more than ever.

Severe dermatitis, for example, remains a problem for farm workers because many workers, including children, do not seek medical attention because they are afraid of being fired or punished in some other way. They rely on home remedies. Instances of slavery and forced prostitution continue to surface because growers and their crew chiefs do not have to worry about being punished. A few courageous judges have sent a handful of these racketeers to prison, even as the governor and others remain silent.

But crew chiefs are bottom-rung criminals. The growers themselves _ those who use the crew chiefs and who have ample knowledge of what is going on _ should be tried in court. Far too many of them have elected and unelected officials in their pockets. Florida agribusiness dumps huge sums into the campaigns of many politicians. No small number of lawmakers are themselves growers or hail from farm-owning families.

These merchants of greed are in no mind to approve legislation that will force them to treat migrant farm workers fairly and decently. And they are ethically incapable of policing themselves. As a result, Florida has a tradition of abuse in the fields and a system of winking and nodding with the gang in Tallahassee.

But politicians, growers and their subcontractors do not deserve all the blame for the abuse of farm workers in the Sunshine State. Florida consumers are no better. We would not tolerate such mistreatment of any other group. We become self-righteously outraged when we hear of sweatshops in faraway Third World countries.

Well, a simple trip a few miles inland from any of our major roadways will reveal a world of harsh treatment and criminal practices. If you do not believe me, come to Polk County, where I am as I write. Go to western Palm Beach County. Go to Immokalee. Look around Hillsborough and Manatee counties.

The Orlando Sentinel reports that the U.S. Department of Labor set a national priority to crack down on wage abuses in the agriculture industry and other industries that exploit immigrants. During 2002, officials closed 2,177 cases and collected about $2.1-million in back wages owed to farm workers. Although promising, these figures represent a drop in the bucket.