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Modern Day Slavery, Part 1 - Used and Abused

Harvest yields loss of lives and money
Smuggled migrants are dying trying to get to Florida. Those who make it cost U.S. taxpayers.

Palm Beach Post Staff Writers
Sunday, Dec. 7, 2003

Modern-day slaves toil in Florida's fields of plenty.

They slip across the Mexican border at great peril, cross the country in the dark hollows of vans, stay silent as they are "bought" and "sold" in fruit groves and rest stops dotting the American landscape.

A destitute minority in a wealthy, well-fed society, they are packed like prisoners into unfit housing, ferried to work in unsafe vehicles and compelled to labor long hours -- under fake names and numbers -- for substandard wages.

Enslaved by debt from the very moment they arrive, they contribute mightily to Florida's $62 billion agricultural industry, yet they earn little in return.

In the worst cases, they are threatened, beaten and locked up in their dingy quarters to prevent their escape.

This is the state of the harvest in 2003.

"The richest, most powerful people in the state are benefiting from this," says Rob Williams, director of the Migrant Farmworker Justice Project, a legal advocacy group in Florida. "They don't want it to change."

Even those at the top tier of the agricultural industry admit something is terribly wrong. When a federal judge, K. Michael Moore, presiding over a modern-day

slavery case in Fort Pierce last November, suggested prosecutors redirect their gaze from the middlemen labor contractors on trial to others at a "higher level," the powerful industry took note.

"Some of the abuses... certainly trouble us," a spokeswoman for Tropicana, Kristine Nickel, told The Palm Beach Post. "No one wants to see them continue." However, she added, "we are not police in terms of the migrant issue."

That, precisely, is the problem. Nobody is. Some farmers have taken great care in recent decades to make sure they pay and treat workers fairly, but their efforts are easily eclipsed by the stunning abuses that still occur.

The Palm Beach Post, in a nine-month investigation, interviewed farm workers who reported being locked up, raped, struck by lightning, sickened by pesticides and shorted on pay to the point they could barely exist. Primarily Mexican but also Guatemalan, Salvadoran and Honduran, they are part of an eager and oppressed work force that allows Americans to purchase a half-gallon of fresh orange juice for $3.39 and a pound of tomatoes for $1.29.

The findings:

Slavery exists today. Five modern-day slavery cases prosecuted in the past six years by the U.S. government have roots in Florida. In addition, The Post has found two new cases in which men and women say they were locked up while employed in Florida tomato fields. In Wimauma, south of Tampa, a youth minister found a chained and padlocked trailer -- with men trapped inside. They said they had been "bought" by a labor contractor and were now working off smuggling debts.
"Can you believe that?" the pastor said in an interview. "I told them, 'We don't do that in this country.' "

The men in the trailer were enslaved in one fashion; the wives and daughters of such men often fall victim in another way. Promising jobs in housekeeping or child care, unscrupulous recruiters lure them across the border, then place them instead in brothels. In cheap trailers across the state, and sometimes in houses in middle-class neighborhoods, they work out of popular "twenty-one clubs," where men buy sex for $20 and a condom for $1.

Widespread Social Security fraud. Florida's fields are full of illegal workers laboring under bogus Social Security numbers and fake names. Licensed labor contractors and fly-by-night operators accept and sometimes provide fake identities in order to supply growers with the cheap labor they say they need to stay in business. The workers -- while benefiting from a lax system that insists upon proper documents but limits their scrutiny -- are taken advantage of in a number of ways. They are robbed of minimum wage and subjected to phony Social Security deductions that wind up in a government overflow fund -- or in contractors' pockets.
"In Florida, I never worry about paperwork," says one 36-year-old fruit picker. "Other states, yes. But in Florida, you just go to work, no problem."

A middleman system that perpetuates fraud, abuse and slavish conditions year after year. Contractors can handle a few men or hundreds, setting them up with picking jobs on the land of farmers who distance themselves from the details. Many contractors keep a tight rein on their charges, controlling every aspect of their lives: shelter, meals, transportation, even phone calls and laundry. Some contractors sleep in cramped quarters with their men to ensure they do not leave their employ, and, in extreme cases, scouts with cellphones monitor workers' moves and report to their bosses.
Good contractors can make a worker -- providing him with a scant living and money to send home to his family -- and bad ones can break him. As in arms and legs.

"Most farm workers," says Laura Germino of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, "work in sweatshop conditions."

The Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation, which tests and licenses farm labor contractors, acknowledges a problem. In the past six months, it has stepped up efforts to seek out unlicensed contractors and better regulate licensed ones, said Mark Whitten, the acting division director of regulation. For instance, on Nov. 20, investigators did spot-checks of 10 contractors in Palm Beach County and issued four citations. "We're not done yet," Whitten said.

A political system controlled by agricultural interests. In Florida, laws are shaped by a tight group of politician-farmers with a vested interest in the state's agricultural policy. Fully half of the 14 members of the House Agriculture Committee have strong ties to the industry, including the committee chairwoman, Rep. Marty Bowen, R-Winter Haven. It was Bowen, who has interests in three groves, who allowed a pesticide protection bill to die in committee this year. She also was instrumental in stalling a proposed "anti-slavery bill" that would have given workers the right to sue growers in state court for the misdeeds of their contractors.
Bowen blames the bill's sponsor, Rep. Frank Peterman, D-St. Petersburg. She said she offered to sign the necessary paperwork to allow the bill to skip her committee, but Peterman failed to visit her to discuss that. The bill had little chance anyway, she said: "Slavery was done away with in this country in 1865."

Migrants live and work in squalor -- still. Despite a raft of tough regulations, some workers report they are denied the basics in the fields: drinking water, toilets, hand-washing facilities. Many do not get the pesticide training they are supposed to by law, and pesticide violations recorded by state inspectors seldom result in fines.
What's more, Florida farm workers live in some of the worst housing in the country. Aging, rat-infested trailers dot the state, owned by slumlords and rented by crew leaders eager to make a buck off poor migrants. In Palm Beach County, official migrant housing exists for only 6,635 workers, not enough to accommodate the 20,000 to 45,000 laborers who need a place to live during the season. In Lake Worth and West Palm Beach, there is no permitted housing at all; instead, thousands of workers cram into decrepit rentals.

Hidden costs. In a farm labor system that relies heavily on undocumented workers, spillover costs are incalculable: hospital care, education, welfare and public safety programs. In Palm Beach County this year, the school district will spend $2.1 million in federal money to help educate 7,100 children of migrant farm workers. Public and private agencies in Palm Beach, Martin and St. Lucie counties spend at least $21.5 million a year on programs that serve immigrants, according to a survey by The Post.
Earlier this year, the plight of one man, Luis Jimenez, who had crossed the border in search of farm work, illustrated a worst-case scenario: Severely brain-damaged in a car crash, he was hospitalized in Martin County, where he amassed $1 million in medical bills he could not pay. Eventually discharged, the 31-year-old Guatemalan was returned to his country, where he was supposed to receive rehabilitation care. He now lives in a rural village with his ailing mother, without benefit of his prescription medicines.

Jimenez's story made headlines. So, in a much bigger way, did a story from Victoria, Texas, where in May, 19 smuggled Mexican and Central American immigrants died after being sealed in the back of an airless tractor-trailer. But many deaths go unreported.

The Mexican government says at least 398 people died this year trying to cross the 1,933-mile border, but that number does not include undiscovered skeletons or bodies left buried in the dusty desert. As the United States tightens its borders, Mexican and Central American migrants take increasingly remote paths through desert and canyon to get here.

The journey is difficult, the future uncertain, and yet the impoverished life at home seems to carry more risks.

This is why, each year, hundreds of thousands of Mexican workers stream across the border, silently, illicitly, desperately. Many find their way to Florida, where they begin new lives in the glittering citrus fields and rows of blood-red tomatoes, taking their place among the country's hardest-working, lowest-paid labor class.

They are looking for the American Dream -- or simply for $100 to send back home.

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