MIAMI HERALD

May 15, 2004

 

 

Farmworker protections become law
Gov. Jeb Bush signed a bill that farmworker advocates hope will curtail abuse

and exploitation in Florida's fields.


BY PHIL LONG AND RONNIE GREENE

IMMOKALEE - Standing in the town where farm-labor advocates have exposed slavery

and fought for worker protections, Gov. Jeb Bush on Friday signed a law meant to

protect Florida farmworkers from unscrupulous bosses and dangerous pesticides.

 

Flanked by the relatives of a late farmworker and crusader for whom the bill is named,

Bush signed a law that advocates say will better protect the laborers whose sweat

harvests crops in the state's second-richest industry.

 

Many workers have been exploited by farm bosses who lured them with promises

of prosperity but delivered only long workdays, poverty pay, slum housing and loan-shark

advances.

 

A dozen Florida farm contractors, smugglers and henchmen have landed in prison in

recent years for crimes against farmworkers, including slavery.

 

A Herald investigation last August, Fields of Despair, detailed many of those abuses

and documented how Florida leads the nation in the number of scofflaw farm-labor

contractors -- the middlemen hired by growers to provide workers.

 

The series helped prompt the law, which increases criminal penalties and civil fines

against those who exploit laborers and makes employing an unlicensed labor contractor

a crime.

 

The law forbids labor bosses from price-gouging for necessities such as food, water

and housing, a common practice in some work camps.

 

It also guarantees that critical information about pesticides be made available to workers

who seek it and prohibits retaliation against those who do.

 

''It's tough, tough work, and it's important for us to make sure that work is provided the same

protection as other workers . . . in urban areas across the state,'' Bush said from a state

One-Stop Career Center in Immokalee, 110 miles from Miami, where farmworkers are

provided job counseling and training.

 

``Farmworkers are as deserving of respect as any other workers in the state because

of the importance of agriculture.''

 

The law also repeals what the governor called a ''patently unfair and unconstitutional''

policy that gave families of Mexican and other foreign migrant workers half of the worker's

compensation death benefits that American and Canadian migrant workers received.

 

The law is named after Alfredo Bahena, who came to the United States as a migrant worker

when he was a teenager, then later fought for pesticide and other protections.

 

He was health and environmental safety coordinator for the Farmworkers Association of Florida

until his death in an auto accident last month.

 

As Bush spoke Friday, Bahena's widow and other relatives stood by, some choked up

as his fight for justice was remembered.

 

''He's inspired me to help other people. I want to be just like him,'' said his daughter

Gabriela, 13, who volunteers at a farmworker advocacy center and hopes to become

a lawyer.

 

Bush called Bahena a ``tireless advocate who lobbied for laws to provide better living

and working conditions.''

 

The governor maintained the majority of Florida farm contractors operate within the law.

 

''This law targets those who don't'' and gives Florida the tools ''to put them out of business

or behind bars,'' he said.

 

Agriculture is big business in Florida.

The state's crops yield $7 billion a year, triggering a $60 billion economic impact,

Bush said. Up to 300,000 labor in the seasonal work, with 3,600 licensed farm contractors.

 

Some worker advocates, while lauding the law, say more needs to be done. In particular,

the growers who hire the middlemen contractors and reap the ultimate farm profits should

be held more accountable for abuses of workers, the advocates say.

 

Rob Williams, director of the Migrant Farmworker Justice Project in Tallahassee, is among

those who believe growers should bear more accountability. At the same time, Williams

sees the law as progress.

 

''I think it makes it better,'' Williams said. ``They make for a stronger law. And we shall see

what the results are.''