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October 2005, Volume 11, Number 4

Florida, Southeast

The Palm Beach Post on July 31, 2005 reported that many of the state's nurseries violate pesticide safety laws, and that nursery workers were at higher risk because many work in enclosed spaces. The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services reported that 46 percent of nurseries inspected in 2004 were found in violation of one or more pesticide laws, often failing to post notices, as compared to 33 percent of Florida fruit and vegetable farms.

Florida had 4,200 nurseries covering 62,000 acres in 2004, and their sales were $1.6 billion. The industry says that it has 35,000 employees, 75 percent full-time workers, including many women. Since nurseries are smaller and workers often live nearby, they are more likely to be exposed to pesticides than other farm workers. In one study, 80 percent of fernery workers complained of skin rashes they attributed to pesticides.

A couple employed by a firm considered a model employer, Silver Vase nursery in Homestead, filed suit because their fourth child had birth defects. Silver Vase is one of the few nurseries to offer health and pension benefits, and uses a pest management system that involves fewer pesticides than normal. It is generally difficult for workers to prove that the pesticides to which they were exposed to at work caused injuries or illnesses.

In Pierson, state inspectors closed company-owned apartments for fern cutters, prompting complaints from workers. Steve Kirk, president of NGO Rural Neighborhoods, commented on the dilemma: "Without enforcement, households face poor conditions. If there is enforcement, workers face homelessness." Rural Neighborhoods is the largest developer of farm worker housing in Florida, with 800 units that mostly rent for $400 a month.

Albin Hagstrom and Son Inc, owner of the complex, is one of Volusia County's largest ferneries. The county opened New Hope Villas in 2001 but, because the $6 million project was federally funded, tenants must show they are legally in the US. The Collier Housing Authority said that it used federal and local funds to build a $4 million, 192-dormitory style facility in 2004 for which workers pay $7 a day.

The US Labor Department's Wage and Hour Division in September 2005 upheld $37,000 in civil penalties levied on Circle H Citrus for the deaths of nine workers being transported near Ft. Pierce, Florida, in a company-leased vehicle in April 2004. The fine, the maximum penalty permitted by the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act (MSPA), was originally levied in July 2004 but was appealed. Two weeks after the fatal accident, another Circle H van was stopped with more than the maximum 15 passengers.

The survivors and the families of the men who died filed lawsuits against Circle H, the driver of the van and the Ford Motor Company.

The Coalition of Immokalee Worker's (CIW) in March 2005 reached an agreement with Yum Brands, owner of Taco Bell and chains such as Pizza Hut, KFC, Long John Silvers, and A&W, that raises piece rate wages by one cent a pound for the Florida tomatoes it purchases. Yum Brands created the Unified Foodservice Purchasing Coop to buy tomatoes at the higher price, and the CIW is to ensure that Yum's tomato suppliers pass on the price increase to workers in a wage increase.

CIW has launched a "fair food" campaign, appealing to McDonalds, Burger King, and Subway to follow Taco Bell's lead and enter into agreements to raise the prices paid for Florida tomatoes so that workers' wages can rise. 'The CIW's 2001-05 Taco Bell campaign was supported by student groups, religious organizations and labor unions.

Ag-Mart Produce, a tomato grower at the center of two-state investigation into pesticides and birth defects, was fined a record $111,200 by Florida agriculture officials in October 2005. The complaint that cited 88 counts of pesticide violations on two company farms, including one in Immokalee, such as having workers harvest one or two days after pesticide applications when the label called for a seven-day waiting period. However, a report found no link between birth defects suffered by three babies born to Ag-Mart fieldworkers and pesticides.

Ag-Mart has been cited for pesticide violations in four previous cases, including one at the Immokalee farm, and received warnings rather than fines.

Sugar Cane. H-2A cane cutters filed class action suits in the early 1990s seeking back pay from five sugar growers, including Osceola Farms. In June 2005, a Florida judge ruled that cutters must proceed individually rather than as a class to sue Osceola, prompting the Migrant Farmworker Justice Project to search out 2,000 former cutters in Jamaica.

In September 2005, some 1,000 former cane cutters filed suit in U.S. District Court in West Palm Beach under the Class Action Fairness Act, which pushed many class action suits from state to federal courts. The suit, which seeks $5 million in back pay, alleges that, between 1987 and 1992, Osceola did not pay the piece rate promised in its H-2A job offers, and under-reported hours so that it did not have to provide cutters with make-up pay.

Jodie Foster is reportedly directing a movie entitled "The Sugar Kings" for Universal Pictures about the H-2A cane cutters.

There have been artificial sweeteners since saccharin was invented in 1879, but sucralose (Splenda) is gaining market share because it can be used in a wider variety of foods and drinks than other artificial sweeteners and is said to taste more like sugar. The world's most widely used artificial sweetener, aspartame (NutraSweet), is no longer protected by patents.

US orange production has been reduced by a series of hurricanes in Florida, and in August 2005 the US Commerce Department imposed anti-dumping tariffs on Brazilian frozen concentrated orange juice. Brazil is the world's largest orange-juice exporter, accounting for about 80 percent of exports.

North Carolina Avian Flu. The Farm Labor Organizing Committee complained that North Carolina, the country's third-largest poultry producer, was not doing enough to protect mostly Guatemalan and Mexican poultry workers from avian flu. Most poultry plants have not held meetings to educate workers about the dangers posed by avian flu, saying that the risks were too low to justify scaring their work forces.

Katrina. Hurricane Katrina's devastation of New Orleans in August 2005 reduced the supply of US seafood by about 30 percent. Coastal wetlands and marshes make Louisiana the leading producer of shrimp and oysters, employing some 27,000 people, albeit many seasonally, but polluted water and storm damage to the marsh system could delay the recovery of the fisheries industry. Grand Isle, Louisiana's only inhabited barrier island, has 280 species of fish due to its location as an estuary and river delta.

Katrina also disrupted exports of corn and grains, many of which move from New Orleans. Net farm income, a record $82.5 billion in 2004, is likely to drop in 2005 because of increased costs and higher fuel prices. American taxpayers and consumers paid $47 billion to US farmers last year, about 20 percent of farm receipts of $235 billion.

Hispanics account for about five percent of the Eastern Shore's 51,000 residents, but they accounted for 25 percent of the highway fatalities in the area. In most cases, the Hispanic drivers in fatal crashes were driving cars owned by others and had neither insurance nor licenses; alcohol was often a factor. In July, the Hispanic population on the Eastern Shore swells from 3,000 to 7,000 as migrant tomato pickers arrive.

Christine Evans, "State fines Ag-Mart $111,200 for pesticide violations," Palm Beach Post, October 13, 2005. Melissa Griggs, "Substandard housing battle could leave fern cutters homeless," News Journal, September 6, 2005. John Lanitgua, "Alarm grows over pesticide threat in nurseries," Palm Beach Post, July 31, 2005.