Confined Space
News and Commentary on Workplace Health & Safety, Labor and Politics

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Florida Farmworkers Continue To Suffer Behind Window Dressing Regulations

Last May, Florida Governor Jeb Bush passed the Alfredo Bahena law designed to clamp down on abuses of Florida farmworkers. Passage of the law followed a 2003 Miami Herald series called Fields of Dispair. But things don't seem to have gotten much better. In fact, Lisa Butler, a Florida Rural Legal Services lawyer has had to file a lawsuit aginst Hastings' Byrnes Farms and its Crescent City contractor, Sinclair T. Smith, who provided laborers to pack and grade the farmer's cabbage and potatoes.
Among the allegations: Smith unlawfully charged workers 100 percent interest on wage advances, housed them in a camp with broken toilets and a defective fire exit, lacked proper licenses to house and transport them, understated their hours worked, forced an injured laborer to continue working, and battered and threatened others into staying.
The problem with the law, advocates claim is that it "puts the focus on contractors who hire the laborers, not the growers who own the land."
"The truth of the matter is that the state law is flawed very badly,'' said Gregory Schell, a lawyer with Florida Legal Services in Lake Worth who has tangled with the industry for decades.

"What happens when they take their license? The wife, brother, father, whatever takes the license and the job goes on without any real change."

He and other advocates say the state law should mirror federal law, which can hold both the grower and the labor contractor liable for abuses.

"It's like arresting all the street-level drug dealers doesn't end the drug problem. You have to arrest the kingpin," Schell said. "The grower has to tell the crew leader to stop."

Kristen Ploska [the Department of Business and Professional Regulation] said her state agency "doesn't have any statutory authority over the growers," but added: "When a farm labor contractor is fined thousands and thousands of dollars, which the law allows us to do, I think it hurts the grower as well."
Farmworker advocates aren’t so sure:
"From where we're sitting, I have not seen any change in behavior because of that law," said Lisa Butler…. driving through North Florida farm country this month to visit housing camps and inform workers of their rights. "Whatever sweeps they did had little or no impact, long-term."
So why is the law so weak?
Laborers who toil in North Florida's camps are one sliver of the state's second biggest industry, after tourism. More than 200,000 do the seasonal work, with about 4,000 licensed farm contractors.

The state's crops carry a $60 billion economic impact, and the companies behind it are big political players.

Worker advocates say the connection between growers and politicians is one reason that reforms have only begun to tame the abuses.
Meanwhile, farm laborers continue to suffer through third world working conditions.

And the struggle continues.

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