South Florida Sun-Sentinel
May 13, 2005
Farm workers bypassed on legislation for housing, safety needs
By Sandra Hernandez
Farm workers lost their bid to get two key bills passed that would have saved lives on the state's highways and repaired housing lost to hurricanes last year.
"I don't think anything was done for farm workers this year," said Rep. Susan Bucher, D-West Palm Beach, who supported the bills.
One measure that failed would have required seat belts for all passengers in vans used to drive farm workers to fields.
Transportation-related accidents were the leading cause of death for migrant workers in Florida, according to an Associated Press study done last year in Florida. Last year, 11 people died in accidents involving crowded minivans carrying laborers.
For farm workers such as Faustino Barrios, the change would have had an immediate effect. "We often ride in the back of the trucks, sometimes with equipment or crates, and it's a bit unstable," said Barrios, who is currently harvesting cucumbers in Immokalee.
Legislators also eliminated from a $208 million hurricane housing bill funding that would have helped migrants who lost their homes in last year's storms. Many workers are ineligible for any other help, including federal housing assistance, because they are undocumented immigrants. Gov. Jeb Bush's Hurricane Housing Work Group had recommended $20 million to rebuild farm worker housing lost to Hurricanes Charley, Frances, Jeanne and Ivan. In addition it suggested $20.5 million to help the elderly and handicapped.
State Sen. Ken Pruitt, R-Port St. Lucie, drafted the amendment that eliminated the funding for both migrants and special needs. The South Florida Sun-Sentinel was unable to reach Pruitt for comment.
Bush's office declined to comment until it receives an official copy of the budget, according to spokesman Russell Schweiss.
Advocates and growers feared a looming housing shortage could keep some workers away from Florida in November when the harvest begins.
"I think its ironic the state Legislature invested in trying to solve the citrus canker problem, but what if there is no one there to harvest it?" said Steve Kirk, a member of the task force and president of the of Everglades Community Association, a nonprofit housing developer in Homestead. "If you don't have a place to live, there might not be anyone to pick the fruit."
Growers associations such as Mike Carlton of the Lakeland-based Florida Citrus Mutual also said they feared it could disrupt the harvest. The trade group has more than 10,000 members.
"Our ability to meet the national food supply is a security issue," Carlton said. "This segment of the population is critical to providing that domestic food supply."
The state's farm worker population is estimated to be around 150,000 during peak harvest season, according to the Migrant Farmworker Justice Project, a Tallahassee-based advocacy group.
The exact amount of housing stock destroyed is unknown, especially for migrants who often live in overcrowded trailers and apartments. But in De Soto, Hardee, St. Lucie and Indian River counties, at least 1,000 units were ruined, according to advocates.
Barrios said some friends were leaving Florida. "People are talking about just going north. I know some people with families don't want to risk not finding anything, so they are leaving," Barrios said.
PALM BEACH POST
May 1, 2005
Abundance of poisons, shortage of monitoring
The biggest difference between California and Florida tomatoes isn't taste or price but the amount of pesticides used to grow them.
In California, farmers use an average of 51 pounds of pesticides to produce an acre of tomatoes, according to federal statistics. Florida growers use 196 pounds, almost four times as much. The state's sandy soil, tropical climate and large populations of pests make it necessary for farmers to rely on more chemicals to stay in business, agriculture officials say, and without the heavy use of pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers, Florida could not compete in the global marketplace.
The biggest difference between California and Florida regulators is how well they protect farmworkers from chemical poisoning, especially from pesticides. California has an aggressive monitoring system, with laws that require growers to adhere to strict guidelines and report cases of chemical exposure. In Florida, regulation is lackadaisical and deplorably ineffective. One statistic captures the gap between the states: In 2003, California inspectors documented 614 cases of illnesses or injuries that were linked to pesticide use; Florida inspectors documented only three that year, and none of them was in agriculture. Even allowing for the difference in numbers of farmworkers — California has more than twice as many — the disparity in cases makes it clear that one state is serious about protecting people and the other is not.
Florida's failure grows from a fundamental flaw that leaves enforcement to the state Department of Agriculture, an obvious conflict of interest. California inspectors work out of a separate Department of Pesticide Regulation and have the autonomy to do their jobs. California also has many more state inspectors — about 350 compared with about 45 in Florida — and the counties assign hundreds more to work at least part-time in compliance and enforcement. When California inspectors find violations, they are much likelier to draw fines and penalties; Florida inspectors often give growers repeated warnings for the same violations. The state's doctors and health departments also have been indifferent when it comes to following a law requiring them to report pesticide poisonings. Only a few reports are made each year.
Last month, The Palm Beach Post broke the tragic news of severe birth-defect cases involving three children born within the past six months to migrant workers in Immokalee. The Mexican mothers lived close to each other at the same labor camp and worked in the same fields, operated by Ag-Mart Produce Inc. The company says it's too early to tell what caused the deformities and that investigators should be given the chance to find out what happened. But one conclusion already is apparent: The state is failing to ensure safe conditions for hundreds of thousands of farmworkers, whose labor is vital to the state's economy. All Floridians bear a share of the shame for that.
May 22, 2005
ILLEGAL, BUT ESSENTIAL
Migrant Workers Find Jobs Easily in Polk County and Across Florida
Samuel is a 28-year-old Mexican who has worked a decade in Florida's citrus groves, mostly in Polk County.
Like thousands of other immigrants in Polk, and many millions more in the United States, Samuel entered the country illegally.
But as far as his day-to-day life is concerned, his legal status is of little consequence: He is able to find work easily and, short of committing a crime, will likely never be sent back to Mexico.
With its vast citrus groves and booming economy, Polk is a magnet for immigrant workers, who, like Samuel, are mostly from Mexico.
They quickly find jobs even though both the employer and the worker are breaking the law because it's illegal to hire an undocumented immigrant and it's a crime to enter the United States illegally.
Even with the roiling debate in Congress about cracking down on illegal immigrants and implementing tougher border controls, it is highly unlikely this stream of workers will suddenly be shut off.
"Some want to send every one back and build fences," said Greg Schell, managing lawyer for the Migrant Farmworker Justice Project. "But even the Republicans know that's `not good for business' as they say. It's not good for the economy.
"If these guys (immigrant workers) disappeared, the economy would grind to a halt very quickly," he said.
Polk's lawmakers are particularly attuned to the dilemma because several have strong ties to agriculture. State Sen. J.D. Alexander and Rep. Baxter Troutman are heirs to the Griffin family citrus and cattle fortune. State Rep. Marty Bowen is a grove owner.
In Polk County, the demand for workers trumps the demand for immigration reform.
U.S. Rep. Adam Putnam, R-Bartow, whose family is in the citrus and cattle business, says most Americans won't spend their days toiling in citrus groves or doing other menial work.
"In many cases they (immigrants) are taking jobs that Americans don't want," Putnam said.
Immigrants willingly fill that void and little is done to stop them.
"In this country, when we don't enforce laws, it's because the general populace doesn't want them enforced," said Jim Griffiths, a grower from Lakeland.
The 2000 Census revealed the Mexican influx. The 13,402 first-generation Mexicans living in Polk County was five times more than the 2,667 in 1990.
Florida had about 300,000 migrant and seasonal farmworkers, including 16,525 in Polk County, according to the National Agricultural Workers Survey in 1997-98, the most recent county-by-county data available. Add family members and Polk's number increases to more than 24,000.
And while a new migrant -- one who moves from crops to roofs, not following the crops from state to state, during the year -- may be emerging, today's workers are mostly young, male, largely undocumented and overwhelmingly Mexican.
According to the recently released National Agricultural Workers Survey, foreigners made up 72 percent of all workers in their first year of farm work.
They come for a better life or at least one that pays more than $5 to $10 a day, common wages for a laborer in Mexico. To do it, they're willing to make a treacherous desert crossing and pay a human trafficker known as a "coyote" up to $2,000.
Once here, they will even commit fraud and buy fake Social Security cards to get a job.
But for all their efforts, migrants remain among the lowest-paid workers. They are vulnerable to employers, landlords and people who say they will get them proper documentation.
The average farmworker makes between $10,000 and $12,499 per year.
A migrant picking oranges this season made an average of about $8 a bin. A very good day brings $80, but the work is not year round.
"I stay here because I need work. I need the money," said Samuel, who is at the high end of the grove worker hierarchy, making $300 to $400 weekly driving the "goat" truck that puts bins of fruit on a trailer.
Samuel, who will migrate north with the crops, pays $300 a month for a single-wide mobile home built in 1975, one of about 25 homes licensed as migrant housing in Polk County. He shares the place with his brother when he is here. It is practically a Hilton compared with the unregulated options, where young men are charged $100 a head for a place with holes in the walls and broken plumbing fixtures.
"I'd like to do something where I made more money if I could," Samuel said. "But I haven't tried because I've gotten used to it (farm work). . . . Physical labor would be OK. I'd be falling asleep if I wasn't doing anything.
"I like to work."
WHO IS WATCHING OUT FOR THEM?
To protect migrants from abuse, various state and federal laws are in place, including the federal Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act that was passed in 1983. It covers child labor and requires employers to provide a safe work environment and give specific information about wages to workers.
Although the laws' intentions are good, enforcement is split among several state and federal agencies that combined have a small number of workers to police a vast industry, advocates say.
In fact, the 245 labor contractors certified to recruit and hire farmworkers in Polk County are more than double the state and federal investigators responsible for the entire state. The breakdown of enforcement agencies:
· The U.S. Department of Labor has about 75 investigators in Florida, working everything from construction to agriculture, where they concentrate on growers. They look for wage and hour violations, and make sure workers get written explanations of deductions from their pay.
· The Department of Health has one investigator in Polk County to check on licensed migrant housing or camps. He also spends his time inspecting places like tanning booths.
· Florida's Department of Business and Professional Regulation has 15 farm labor investigators who do only farm labor inspections. Two are "assigned" to Polk, although others may work in the area. Their jobs typically involve overseeing the state's 2,848 farm labor contractors, commonly known as crew chiefs. They look for child labor, field sanitation and the safety of transportation.
Migrant advocates say farm labor contractors, who are overwhelmingly Hispanic, are merely buffers for growers.
"They are the middlemen at best and straw men at worst," said Lisa Butler, farmworker project group leader for Florida Rural Legal Services.
To improve pay and working conditions, Schell, the migrant lawyer, says the growers, not the contractors, should be punished.
"You put some white people in jail, you fine white people a lot of money. This is what it's all about. All these labor cases, any white people paying a fine? Any white people going to jail?" Schell asks.
Statistics show that enforcement is heavily tilted toward contractors.
DBPR cited 81 farm labor contractors from Polk County with 158 violations from 2002 through 2004. Not all of the violations resulted in fines -- 24 were warnings, seven cases were dismissed and one case was determined to be unfounded.
The contractors were assessed a total of $56,550 for violations such as lack of vehicle insurance, not being registered as contractors and child labor infractions.
During the same period, the Department of Labor conducted 12 investigations involving 10 Polk County growers. Parts of the reports were blacked out -- including the type of complaint, type of investigation and recommendations -- because of privacy issues or disclosure of information that the department said might hamper "the deliberative process within the division."
Documents from those investigations show 16 violations ranging from not posting working conditions to using unregistered farm labor contractors. The fines had a possible total of $2,675, but none of the Polk growers were assessed a monetary penalty.
Rep. Putnam said growers place their trust in the labor contractor. But he would also like to see Social Security create a secure, possibly encripted, site where employers could check to make sure a name and number match up.
Putnam likens the issue to someone trying to build a house. He says a homeowner wouldn't ask a plumber or electrician or a drywaller for proof of citizenship.
"You hire someone to perform a service or task for you and you have a reasonable assumption that they are licensed, bonded and permitted and all the things that go along with doing due diligence," Putnam said.
"You are assuming they are complying with the law, paying minimum wage, following health and safety laws and OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) regulations."
Griffiths, the citrus grower from Lakeland, says hiring workers is not his job. "I wouldn't have the slightest idea who any of them were or where they are from."
He also said he's never had any interest in checking to see who is working.
"Theoretically, you can be fined or penalized for that (illegals). But it doesn't matter to me because I don't ever see them or know anything about them," Griffiths said.
"I think that would be true for most growers. That's the responsibility of the guy (the labor contractor) hiring them to determine whether they're legal or not. The liability goes back to him."
Last year Sen. Alexander successfully pushed enactment of a law to increase protection of farmworkers. It upped fines from $1,000 to $2,500 and made it a third-degree felony to employ someone who acts as a crew chief but isn't a registered farm labor contractor.
Advocates say the law didn't go far enough.
"It is a food chain . . .," said Butler, the migrant advocate. "You need to get to a level of business entities, which in fact make the profit here, and have the ability to structure the workplace."
But growers such as Will Putnam, brother of Rep. Putnam, say they are an easy target.
"Any time a group gets together and wants to make a point, they're going to go after who has the deeper pockets," Putnam said.
Putnam said that profits are not what they once were for the citrus industry.
Land prices have skyrocketed, he said, along with higher costs for fertilizer and chemicals.
"I don't think people realize the situation we're in at all," Putnam said. "I don't think our pickers recognize the situation we're in . . ..
"Brazil controls the world's orange juice market, and as long as they control it -- and they always will -- you will never see citrus as profitable a business as it once was," he said. "Ultimately, you'll see it as the reason for all the beautiful groves in Florida being (housing) developments."
A labor contractor said he is doing what he can about illegal workers.
"They give us Social Security (numbers) and visas," said Tomas Barajas, a crew leader for Holly Hills groves. "That's what we need for them to work. . . . We don't ask whether they are illegal or legal.
"That's what they give us, that's what we require and that's what we write down."
Often these documents are bogus.
The Polk County Sheriff's Office busted a counterfeiting operation earlier this year. Other people arrested for having fake IDs said they needed them to get a job, according to police reports.
Crew chiefs' hands are further constrained by privacy issues. A person's residency status is not public record, according to a spokeswoman for the U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services.
FEDERAL AGENCY LAYS LOW
Despite demands by many Americans to send illegal workers packing, there is no federal agency equipped to do that.
After Sept. 11, 2001, border patrol and immigration services merged to form Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which is now known as ICE.
The Tampa ICE office, which is the closest to Polk, would not say how many agents it has in the field. But ICE typically does not go looking for illegals unless it receives a call from another law enforcement agency.
"We don't have the manpower to do that (go into groves randomly)," said Pamela McCullough, public information officer for ICE in Tampa.
Recently, ICE did go to fields in Ruskin, where it picked up 14 farmworkers. ICE was following up on the reported abduction of a migrant girl.
"We had a reason to be there," McCullough said. "That was where that abductor of that little girl was. That's where he was living and working. We raided that camp."
The farmworkers were illegal immigrants. "Most likely," McCullough said, they will be deported.
ICE, though, tends to seek out those who pose the greatest risk to communities. They put a "detain order" on foreign-born criminals while in jail and begin putting them through the removal process once they serve their time.
The U.S. Attorney's Office Middle District, which handles the Orlando, Tampa, Jacksonville and Fort Myers areas, also concentrates on safety issues. One of its big concerns is human trafficking, according to a spokesman. Another is people without proper documentation -- often workers -- found in sensitive areas such as airports, ports or at the Kennedy Space Center.
But there is a way for workers to get jobs without violating laws or possibly becoming the target of law enforcement.
Employers who can demonstrate they have a need -- and can't find them from a U.S. pool of labor -- can use immigrants as part of the guest worker program known as H-2A. Those employers must handle transportation and housing for workers.
Florida currently has only about 1,000 certified guest workers, said Walter Kates, director of the division of labor relations for the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association. None are in Polk.
These guest workers are a tiny fraction of the estimated 300,000 farmworkers in the state.
"It's not very popular anywhere in Florida because of the cost and bureaucracy you have to go through," Kates said.