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SARASOTA/MANATEE FARMWORKER SUPPORTERS

4517 Ascot Circle South,  Sarasota, Florida 34235

(941) 351-8726

Sarasota/Manatee Farmworker Supporters is a branch of the National Farmworker Ministry

www.smfws.com

 

 

FIRST ISSUE FORUM OF 2005

FARMWORKERS IN OUR MIDST:

An objective report on the lives of

Manatee County’s farmworkers

 

SATURDAY, FEBRUARY 5, 2005 – 2:00 – 4:00 P.M.

SELBY PUBLIC LIBRARY, 1331 First Street, Sarasota

Co-sponsored by the SMFWS and the Latino Community Network

 

In November, 2004, area agencies serving the region’s farmworker population released the results of a nine-month survey of migrant farmworkers in Manatee County.  The survey provided the community with the first objective snapshot of the area’s estimated 30,000 or more farmworkers, providing detailed information about the composition of the farmworker population as well as the migrants’ wages, housing conditions and social service needs.

 

The results of the study, along with a discussion of its implications for the future, will be presented at the SMFWS’s first issue forum of the year on Saturday, February 5, 2005, from 2:00 to 4:00 P.M,  at the Selby Public Library in Sarasota.  The forum is co-sponsored by the Latino Community network.

 

The forum will feature two experts on the subject: Christine Talcott-Roberts, Farmworker Specialist of the United States Department of Housing and Urban Planning and Tirso Moreno, president of the Farmworker Association of Florida.   Ms. Talcott-Roberts was the principal author of the Manatee County study, which dispels many misconceptions regarding the area’s growing farmworker population

Mr. Moreno, a former farmworker, head’s the state’s largest farmworker membership organization, and will discuss the implications of the study’s findings for policy makers, social service agencies and the community at large.

 

 

MISSION (partially) ACCOMPLISHED:

Legislative successes for farmworkers in 2004

The 2004 legislative session proved a surprisingly successful one for farmworkers and their supporters.  Despite facing a pro-business legislature, a coalition of farmworkers, religious groups and labor organizations persuaded the lawmakers to adopt a package of reforms to improve the conditions of farmworkers statewide.

 

On the session’s next-to-final day, the legislature adopted the package of reforms, known as the “Alfredo Bahena Act” after a longtime organizer for the Farmworker Association of Florida who was tragically killed in an automobile accident in April, 2004.  Under the new law, which became effective in July, 2004:

 

  • Crewleaders are prohibited from price gouging migrant workers for food, water and housing

 

  • Crewleaders are subject to felony charges if they commit offenses that result in “economic or physical harm to farmworkers”

 

  • Fines for crewleaders who violate the state’s farm labor protection law were increased from $1.000 to $2,500

 

  • The number of state inspectors of farm labor vehicles and field sanitation was increased

 

  • Enhanced the regulation of dangerous pesticides and established the rights of workers to obtain information on these pesticides at their jobsite

 

  • Removed a double standard in Florida’s worker’s compensation law, which paid survivors of aliens killed at work to half of the amount received by families of U.S. workers killed on the job.

 

 

The Alfredo Bahena Act is the most significant piece of farmworker legislation passed in Florida in over 25 years.  It was the culmination of a two-year effort by many dedicated advocates who tirelessly appeared at literally dozens of hearings to make certain that the bill was no surreptitiously tabled or otherwise killed by opponents.

 

For the upcoming 2005 legislative session, farmworker advocates are considering legislation to require seat belts in all farm labor vehicles (see article below on the impact of similar requirements adopted in California).

 

 

 

FARMWORKERS GET A RAISE:

Florida voters approve state minimum wage of $6.15

 

In November, 2004, Florida voters overwhelmingly approved a Constitutional amendment establishing a state minimum wage of $6.15 per hour.  The amendment provides that the wage rate will automatically increase each year with inflation.  Florida joins 12 other states which have adopted state minimum wages.

The state minimum wage is expected to go into effect no later than July, 2005.  For most Florida workers, it will take the place of the federal minimum wage, which has been $5.15 per hour for the past seven years.

 

The state minimum wage is particularly important to low-wage workers, such as farmworkers.  For farmworkers paid by the hour for their work – employees in plant nurseries and packing houses, for example – this will almost always result in a pay increase.  Most hourly employees in Florida agriculture are currently paid considerably less than $6.15 per hour.

 

The law also is important for farmworker paid on a piece-rate basis, receiving a set amount for every bucket or bin harvested.  These workers are also guaranteed the new minimum wage.  This means that if a worker’s piece-rate earnings for the week do not equal or exceed $6.15 per hour, the employer has to make up the difference.  The new minimum wage is expected to put pressure on tomato and citrus growers to increase the piece-rates paid to workers so that the new minimum wage is paid.

 

Florida second to California in farm transport deaths

By MIKE SCHNEIDER
Associated Press Writer

 

FORT PIERCE, Fla. — Jose Luis Garcia Pichardo never wanted his 8-year-old daughter and 4-year-old son to lack anything. So he left his hometown in central Mexico three years ago to work picking oranges and grapefruit in Florida. He sent money to his wife, and saved toys, clothes and shoes to take back to his children.

But Garcia Pichardo never returned home.

He was killed last spring when a speeding, overcrowded van he was riding in rolled over on Interstate 95 in Fort Pierce, also taking the lives of eight other migrant workers. None of the passengers wore safety belts.

An Associated Press review of state and federal records found transportation-related accidents to be the leading cause of work-related deaths for Florida's farmworkers, responsible for 83 fatalities and more than 400 injuries since 1992. Only California, which has more farm laborers, has had more such deaths over the past decade.

Farmworker advocates say changing Florida law to mandate seatbelts in farmworker vehicles and stepping up enforcement would significantly reduce deaths on and off the highways.

Florida has one of the nation's largest migrant farmworker populations, estimated at between 150,000 and 300,000 men and women. Many are illegal immigrants who don't speak English and can't drive themselves because they lack a car or driver's license. They often don't check to see if the vehicles they get into have been insured or inspected as required by law.

"I don't know if the driver has a license because I never ask," said Roberto Perez, a 30-year-old tomato picker in Lake Worth. "The only thing I'm thinking about is getting work."

Among the problems regularly found in farm labor vehicles were no seatbelts, rusted-out holes in the floorboards, cracked windows, doors that don't open and seats that have been torn out, according to an AP review of 878 citations issued by the state from January 1997 to March 2004.

In the past, the state agencies that regulate farm labor safety in Florida have taken transportation problems less seriously than other violations when it comes to punishment, the AP review found.

Until this year, state agencies generally fined farm labor contractors only a few hundred dollars for transportation violations, while other violations such as child labor and delinquent taxes resulted in revoked licenses or fines into the thousands of dollars.

In fact, during the time period reviewed by the AP, not one farm labor contractor had a license revoked by the state for driving-related violations. In a new get-tough approach since March, the state has taken the licenses of three contractors and issued fines of several thousand dollars for driving violations.

The U.S. Department of Labor, the federal agency that also regulates farm labor, said it doesn't maintain data in a way that would show how many contractors in Florida have lost their licenses for transportation violations. But the federal agency has traditionally issued tougher fines over transportation problems. As recently as May 2003, the federal agency won a $3,200 payment from a contractor whose driver didn't have a proper license or vehicle insurance.

Florida compliance officials say that until this past year they had inadequate resources to crack down on the farm labor contractors who regularly broke transportation laws. Those laws prohibit overcrowding, require drivers to have licenses, and vehicles to have insurance and proper inspections.

Oversight began to improve in 2002, officials say, when the Department of Business and Professional Regulation took control of farm labor from the state Department of Labor. Among the changes was the creation of an electronic database of offenders.

"There was poor case management, inconsistent enforcement actions. Follow-up was inconsistent, lackadaisical and sometimes nonexistent," said Mark Whitten, who until November was head of the division that oversaw farm labor for the Department of Business and Professional Regulation. "We're on a new path."

Still, farmworker advocates say there aren't enough compliance officers to make sure the state's thousands of farm labor contractors are following the law. The state has 28 compliance officers, while the federal agency has 75 inspectors in Florida to monitor 3,200 registered farm labor contractors.

Some advocates say there's a surefire way to reduce on the number of deaths and injuries in Florida: mandate seatbelts for farmworker vehicles the way California does.

Florida law currently exempts the mandatory use of seatbelts for buses and vehicles that weigh more than 5,000 pounds, like many vans, although all front-seat passengers must use them.

California lawmakers ended a seatbelt exemption for agricultural vehicles in 1999 after an accident involving an overcrowded van killed 13 farmworkers. The following year, for the first time since 1992, there were no highway deaths resulting from farm labor vehicle accidents.

"It has made a big difference as far as fatalities and injuries," said Officer Dan Aguirre, who works in the California Highway Patrol's farm labor vehicle program.

Florida growers would only support a mandatory seatbelt law if applied to all similar vehicles in other industries, said Ray Gilmer, a spokesman for the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association. "You can't single out agriculture," he said.

Many contractors have seen their pay from growers squeezed in recent years. Sometimes cutting corners is the only way they can survive.

"It has gone from bad to worse. Instead of paying us more, they pay us less," said Lupe Romero, supervisor at Romero Harvesting in Okeechobee. The farm labor contractor has been cited seven times by the state since 1997, including four driving-related citations.

Dan Richey, president of Riverfront Groves in Vero Beach, said growers are concerned about the farmworker safety, but it's ultimately up to the labor contractors.

"All we can do is encourage," said Richey, a former chairman of the Florida Citrus Commission. "There is nothing we can do to legally enforce it."

Both federal and state agencies regulate the contractors. But some farmworker advocates say the federal migrant farmworkers law — which also covers growers — isn't enforced adequately, while the state law falls short because it doesn't apply to growers.

"If you made (the growers) strictly liable ... there would be a sea change in agriculture," said Greg Schell, an attorney for the Migrant Farmworker Justice Project in Lake Worth. "There would be fewer vehicle accidents, less severe accidents and people, when they did get injured, they would have medical care available to them."

Like 37-year-old Garcia Pichardo, many come to the United States for the promise of a better life. The van he was riding in was designed to hold 15 people but 19 workers were jammed in at the time of the April accident. Most of them were thrown out of the vehicle when it rolled over, their bodies scattered on the highway and a grassy median.

The Florida Highway Patrol blamed the accident on the van's driver, Salvador Leon, who survived with serious injuries. Leon received a traffic citation and paid a $150 traffic fine. He also lost his farm labor contractor license and paid a $3,000 penalty to the state.

Leon was driving for Circle H Citrus, a citrus harvesting and hauling company owned by George Pantuso, who last year was appointed to the Florida Citrus Commission. Pantuso was fined $38,000 by the U.S. Department of Labor for that accident and another incident. Pantuso, who has appealed the fine, didn't return phone calls seeking comment.

Several survivors and family members of those killed in the crash, including Garcia Pichardo's widow, have sued Leon, Circle H and Ford Motor Co., the maker of the van.

Garcia Pichardo had expressed concerns to his wife about the vehicles that he was riding in to work. She said he did not want to complain because he needed the work.

Juana Lucero Landin Luna de Garcia, his 28-year-old widow, now is getting by with help from relatives and by selling candy and gum outside the family's home.

"The children ask to talk to their daddy but of course they can't," she said by telephone from Guanajuato in central Mexico. "I don't have any words to console my children."

U.S. Gets Another Reprieve on Use of Pesticide by Farms
Exemption Granted From Ban Set For '05 Under Pact on Ozone Layer

International negotiators ruled on November 26, 2004 that the United States can continue using methyl bromide, a pesticide set to be banned next year because it contributes to the destruction of the Earth's ozone layer.   [Note:  methyl bromide is widely used on the tomato and strawberry crops in Manatee and Hillsborough Counties.]

The pesticide, which has also been linked to prostate cancer and neurological damage, is used widely by American tomato and strawberry farmers and was slated to be eliminated worldwide in 2005 under the Montreal Protocol, the 1987 treaty to restrict the use of ozone-destroying chemicals. The Bush administration had previously secured a one-year reprieve on the grounds that the pesticide qualified for a "critical use" exemption because viable alternatives to methyl bromide are lacking. Yesterday, experts on ozone policy and diplomats extended the U.S. exemption until next year but said the country must cut its use in 2006.

Negotiators for the treaty, which is considered one of the most successful environmental pacts in history, agreed in Prague that in 2005 the United States can use about 37 percent of the amount of methyl bromide it used in 1991, when the phaseout began, but that it can count on only a 27 percent exemption the following year, which would amount to 7,605 tons. The United States had asked for a 37 percent exemption for both years, and it obtained a promise from international negotiators that the group will revisit the issue next summer to determine if it could restore the higher allowance.

Claudia A. McMurray, deputy assistant secretary of state for the environment, said the decision shows that policymakers overseas "acknowledge we are working hard at this, we're having a difficult time, we need their help and we're making a sound technical case" for greater exclusions.

Methyl bromide, a fumigant injected into the soil to kill insects, weeds and disease, remains popular among farmers because it works well. It is also used to fumigate food processing and storage areas, such as grain bins and flour mills, to kill insects and rodents.

David Doniger, policy director of the Natural Resources Defense Council's climate center, said that, rather than resisting further restrictions, the administration should embrace the treaty.

"It's time for the U.S. to stop defending the status quo use of this chemical by agribusiness and start pushing these growers to complete the phaseout," said Doniger, who attended the Prague talks.

Thirteen countries, including the United States, had sought critical-use exemptions for 2006, said Environmental Protection Agency spokeswoman Cynthia Bergman, and 10 got smaller exemptions than they requested. The United States, the world's largest agricultural producer, asked for the biggest methyl bromide allowance.

Ozone, a form of oxygen, is a dangerous pollutant at ground level but forms, high in the atmosphere, a thin layer that blocks harmful ultraviolet rays from the sun. Three decades ago, scientists discovered that several man-made chemicals were filtering into the upper atmosphere and thinning the ozone layer over Antarctica, allowing cancer-causing rays to reach the Earth. In recent years, the southern "ozone hole" reached worrisome proportions, but scientists expect it to disappear in 50 years if countries around the world phase out all the chemicals identified in the Montreal Protocol.

The Agriculture Department has spent $150 million on research into methyl bromide substitutes over the past decade, but farmers, especially in California and Florida, say they have yet to find an acceptable alternative. The international negotiators granted the United States yesterday an additional exemption of 2.5 percent for next year, most of which will go to California strawberry growers and which will bring the 2005 exclusion to more than 37 percent of the 1991 level.

McMurray said that the treaty's technical advisory panel had based its call for a 27 percent U.S. exemption in 2006 on "a very arbitrary basis," and that she spent the past week trying to reverse the recommendation. The fact that negotiators are willing to reconsider the issue next year, she said, shows that the administration had made a strong case for a bigger allowance.

But Kevin Fay, a Washington lobbyist who represents both producers of alternative pesticides and manufacturers that have been forced to comply with the Montreal Protocol in past decades, questioned McMurray's argument.

"The advances in the alternatives are greater than what's been portrayed," Fay said, adding that the United States could go further "in accepting that fact."

 

 

 

FOR MORE ARTICLES ON FARMWORKERS, REGULARLY CHECK ON THE SARASOTA/MANATEE FARM WORKER SUPPORTERS’ WEBSITE:

 

          http://www.smfws.com

 

 The SMFWS website is updated regularly and maintained by M. Frances Eckstein.  The website has the nation’s best and most comprehensive collection of articles on migrant farmworkers.

 

 

HELP THE SMFWS CARRY ON ITS MISSION

 

The SMFWS depends on contributions and fund-raisers in order to continue its advocacy on behalf of migrant farmworkers.   Over the past year, all of the money raised by the SMFWS has been spent in support of farmworkers – holding five issue forums for the public on matters of importance to farmworkers, maintaining the SMFWS website, sending out newsletters, marching in support of farmworkers being unlawfully displaced from a trailer park in Bradenton or to assist farmworkers in Bradenton or Arcadia with desperate needs.

 

If you are able to support our continued efforts, please consider making a contribution to SMFWS.  Make checks payable to “Sarasota/Manatee Farm Worker Supporters” and mail them to:

 

 

Sarasota/Manatee Farm Worker Supporters

4517 Ascot Circle South

Sarasota, Florida  34235