MAXWELL: Our deadly indifference to farm workers 

4/7/2004 – Printed in the EDITORIAL section of The St Petersburg Times Newspaper

FORT PIERCE

Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, every state elected official and all farmers should be ashamed. All Floridians, because of our selfish demand for cheap, fresh produce, should be ashamed. We should be ashamed that we condone the unethical and inhumane treatment of the state’s 300,000-plus farm workers, especially migrants.

What follows describes an event in the lives of Florida farm workers whose misfortune was needing to work to feed their families, for doing thankless jobs few American citizens would stoop to do.

At about 5:50 p.m. on April 1, a Ford 350 cargo van approached the Orange Avenue exit on Interstate 95 in Fort Pierce. According to the Florida Highway Patrol, the driver sent the van swerving across the southbound lanes. The van struck the median and rolled over four times.

Although the Econoline was designed for 15 people, including the driver, it was carrying 19 when it wrecked and ejected all of its occupants onto the interstate. Seven died on the spot, and the other 12 were injured and transported to area hospitals.

The workers were returning to their homes in Fort Pierce from a grove owned by Circle H Citrus. As of this writing, three of the dead, all Mexicans, have been identified. None of the others carried identification.

Florida Highway Patrol spokesman Lt. Tim Frith, who was at the scene, said, “It’s a very heart-wrenching accident. I haven’t seen (seven) fatalities in one vehicle in my career. . . . My understanding is some of these poor gentleman are working there and don’t know anyone. They’re simply here to make money.”

The circumstances surrounding this accident are routine. But these circumstances also reflect the vast clout the farming industry has in Tallahassee.

Salvadore Leon, the van driver, like many others who transport tens of thousands of laborers each day, did not have the proper license to operate the vehicle. Frith said officials were trying to determine why the van seemed to have more passengers than available seats. The Associated Press reports that the Econoline had four bench seats, along with single seats for a driver and passenger.

Not surprisingly, state statutes governing the transport of migrant farm workers are a joke: Drivers can pack as many migrants into a vehicle as they want and can. Only the driver, front-seat passengers and those under the age of 18 are required to wear seat belts. Although federal law requires that all vehicles transporting farm workers must be properly insured, Florida has a poor record of keeping track of the state’s thousands of vans and buses. The state does not care enough about farm workers to hire an adequate number of inspectors.

Sure, accidents will happen. But they happen more often when people who can help prevent them _ Florida’s governor, state lawmakers and consumers who love cheap produce _ are indifferent. Bush and the Legislature could improve highway safety and other areas of life for farm workers today if they had the ethical will to so. But most state officials are in bed with agriculture, Florida’s second largest industry.

A few weeks ago, Bush _ with lawmakers who double as farmers back in their districts standing beside him _ backed legislation that would make crew chiefs and subcontractors guilty of a felony if they jeopardized workers’ health. The centerpiece of the new rules would be an increase from $1,000 to $2,500 in the maximum penalty levied against crew chiefs who break the rules. The laws will be virtually useless because they absolve the real culprits _ the growers _ of responsibility.

The death of the seven migrants in Fort Pierce brings Bush’s proposed legislation into sharp relief, exposing it for the sham that it is.

Note: The dead migrants and the survivors of the crash worked for Circle H Citrus of Fort Pierce. It is owned by the powerful George Pantuso. And who is George Pantuso? Gov. Bush recently appointed him to the Florida Citrus Commission. His term begins June 1.

So, what is the big deal? It is that FHP, along with other authorities, is investigating whether the van driver or Circle H Citrus is liable for the wreck. I am a betting man, and I am cynical enough to wager that, given the state’s practice of allowing growers to shift all blame to their crew chiefs when labor laws are violated, the van driver is in big trouble, perhaps of the vehicular homicide kind.

And the fruit company? I hope that I am wrong this time. But I am betting that Circle H Citrus will be legally exonerated of any responsibility in the death its workers.

All ethical Floridians should be ashamed. When will we publicly protest the abuse of our farm workers?