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January 2001, Volume 7, Number 1

Southeast, Florida Sugar, FLOC

Between 1941 and the mid-1990s, virtually all sugarcane grown in Florida was cut by hand by workers imported from the Caribbean, usually from Jamaica, under the H-2 program (1953-86) and then the H-2A program, after the program was revised slightly by IRCA. US Sugar, the largest cane grower, went to 100 percent mechanical harvesting in 1997-98.


The Department of Labor routinely certified the need of the Florida sugarcane industry for 8,000 to 10,000 H-2/H-2A cane cutters, agreeing with the sugar growers that US cane cutters were not available, and that the presence of the H-2/H-2A cane cutters would not adversely affect similar US workers.


Before obtaining permission to import H-2/H-2A workers, sugar employers were required to file a job order with the Employment Service seeking US workers. Job orders are filed by completing Form ETA 790, which spelled out wages and working conditions. Items 9 and 11 on this form explained wages and working conditions for US workers interested in cutting Florida cane, and the entire ETA 790 clearance order became a contract between the sugar mills and the US or H-2/H-2A workers who were hired to cut cane.


The ETA 790 clearance order in the late 1980s included a guarantee of at least $5.30 an hour, and the phrase "a worker would be expected to cut an average of eight (8) tons of harvest cane per day throughout the season." The clearance order specified that each worker's productivity could be tested at any time after a seven-day training and break-in period. If the worker failed on three days to cut fast enough to earn the $5.30 an hour at the piece or task rate specified by the foreman at the time of testing, the worker could be terminated.


Suits were filed on behalf of the workers against the five major sugar processors who employed the H-2 cane cutters, alleging that, since workers had to earn at least $5.30 an hour, and they were expected to cut an average eight tons of cane a day, and the normal work day was listed as eight hours a day on the ETA 790, the logical conclusion was that workers should earn $5.30 a ton for hand cutting cane. Workers were in fact paid about $3.75 a ton, and the suit sought back pay of about $1.50 a ton. A Florida judge in 1992 agreed with lawyers for the workers that the five major sugar mills owed cane cutters at least $51 million in wages for the years 1987-88 through 1990-91.


On April 30, 1999, a Palm Beach jury agreed with one of the sugar mills, Atlantic, that the clearance order under which US and foreign cane cutters were recruited did NOT "require Atlantic [one of the sugar mills] to pay [cane cutters] a minimum task rate of $5.30 per ton of harvest cane," eliminating $7 million in back pay. On November 22, 2000, the 4th District Court of Appeal rejected the workers' appeal of this decision. In October 1999, a Palm Beach jury reached a similar conclusion with respect to Okeelanta Corp's clearance order; that decision is being appealed. Suits against the Sugar Cane Growers Cooperative of Florida and Osceola Farms Company are pending.


Sugar Policy. The US government keeps the price of US sugar above the world price by making loans to US sugar processors of about $0.18 a pound for cane sugar and $0.23 for beet sugar. If US sugar prices fall below these levels, the processors keep the loan money and forfeit the sugar to the US government. The US government prevents the US price from falling toward the world level of $0.09 a pound by restricting imports of sugar and products made with sugar. About 70 percent of the benefits of the sugar program go to beet growers, who are concentrated in the Midwest.


US sugar production is increasing--a record nine million short tons are projected for FY2000, up from 8.3 million tons in FY99- largely because more Midwestern farmers switched from low-priced grain and corn to sugarbeets, and because Louisiana sugarcane acreage increased enough to surpass Florida's acreage, and yields rose sharply. The result is a glut of sugar that promises to increase as Mexico, beginning in 2001, is allowed to export at least 250,000 tons of sugar duty-free to the US under NAFTA.


The US has granted sugar import quotas to 40 countries; they can export their sugar duty-free to the US. Any sugar imported in excess of 1.3 million tons a year is subject to a tariff of 15.34 cents a pound. This means that, even with very low production costs, producers in, for example, Brazil do not find it profitable to export sugar to the US and pay the tariff.


If US sugar production continues to increase, the US government will wind up storing sugar. To prevent the storage of sugar that cannot be sold on the world market, USDA announced a payment-in-kind program in summer 2000, offering sugar beet farmers the option of up to $20,000 worth of government-stored sugar if they did not harvest their sugar beets and add to the surplus.


Low-cost sugar producers such as Brazil want to liberalize trade in sugar, while some African, Caribbean and Pacific countries that receive preferential rights to export sugar and other commodities to EU nations oppose trade liberalization. During an International Sugar Conference in November 2000, the 14-member Global Alliance For Sugar Trade Reform and Liberalization argued for an end to export subsidies. The Global Alliance of two developed countries and 12 developing countries represents more than 50 percent of world sugar production and more than 85 percent of exports of raw sugar.


The value of Florida farm land rose between May 1999 and 2000, with mature orange groves worth about $7,000 an acre.


Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association (FFVA) in October 2000 donated $35,000 to the Redlands Christian Migrant Association (RCMA) to commemorate its 35th anniversary. RCMA operates Migrant Head Start programs in Florida.


FLOC. Ohio-based FLOC is trying to persuade the Mt. Olive Pickle Co in North Carolina to recognize FLOC as the bargaining agent for the workers employed by growers who produce cucumbers for Mt. Olive. FLOC used this strategy to organize workers employed by Ohio and Michigan farmers who sold cucumbers to Campbells-Vlasic and Heinz.


Since March 1999, FLOC has been boycotting Mt. Olive pickles to try to force the company to increase what it pays to growers and in turn have its growers negotiate labor agreements covering farm workers with FLOC. Mt. Olive is the fourth-largest pickle company, with 12 percent of the US grocery store market.


Pickling cucumbers are picked into buckets, with piece-rate pay ranging from $0.40 to $0.70-the smaller cucumbers bring the highest piece rates. FLOC's goal is to double piece-rate picking wages.



Somini Sengupta, "Farm Union Takes Aim at a Big Pickle Maker," New York Times, October 26, 2000.