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January 2003, Volume 9, Number 1

Florida: Slavery, Housing

Three men, brothers Juan and Ramiro Ramos, and a cousin, Jose Ramos, were sentenced to 10 to 12 years in prison for enslaving 700 unauthorized workers in Florida's citrus groves near Lake Placid in Okeechobee County from January 2000 to June 2001; they also forfeited $3 million from their immigrant smuggling operation. The Ramos' R & A Harvesting, Inc charged workers a $1,000 smuggling fee, and deducted it from the workers' wages.

Since Congress made smuggling a federal felony in 2000, some 53 people have been convicted of human trafficking, and 120 trafficking investigations were under way around the US in November 2002. In January 2002, U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft signed a regulation that allows trafficking victims who cooperate with investigations to remain in the United States for up to three years and later apply for immigrant visas.

U.S. District Judge K. Michael Moore said "Others at a higher level of the fruit picking industry seem complicit in one way or another with how these activities occur." The Labor Committee Chairman of the Indian River Citrus League countered that growers knew nothing of the abuses. Florida's Department of Business and Professional Regulation states that 3,600 farm labor contractors are licensed to recruit workers for Florida farms.

Housing. Many counties are grappling with farm worker housing. The DeSoto County Board of Commissioners in November 2002 unanimously denied Sorrells Groves Inc's application to construct a 192-bed housing facility for H-2A workers just south of Nocatee; local residents opposed the migrant facility. There are an estimated 5,000 citrus pickers in the county at peak.

In Manatee county, where there are 21 licensed migrant labor camps, county officials are attempting to obtain USDA grants for more. County regulations limit housing for farm workers to 15 units on sites of at least 250 acres, and 500 feet from all property lines.

Many Florida farm employers who transport workers are seeing their workers compensation premiums rise sharply. One sweet corn harvester with 300 workers said that his workers' compensation costs are due to rise from $300,000 a year to over $800,000 a year. Most of the winter sweet corn is grown in the Glades area, and harvested by crews of 45 workers that pick and pack up to 10,000 48- to 50-ear crates a day working behind and on a moving vehicle called a mule train.

Regular workers compensation providers are being replaced by specialized firms, such as Agricultural Employee Services, a Fort Myers-based firm founded in 1999 that provides workers compensation insurance to about 75 agricultural companies that have a peak 7,000 employees.

The Coalition for Immokalee Workers, headed by Lucas Benitez and Francisco Martinez, is active among workers employed in southwest Florida to harvest tomatoes and other vegetables.

Immokalee may change if Tom Monaghan, founder of Domino's Pizza, builds the planned Ave Maria University near Immokalee. Ave Maria, Latin for "Hail Mary," would have a 750-acre campus and 5,000 students, as well as a new city on 5,000 acres of land now used to grow winter vegetables. The Baron Collier Companies offered to donate land for the university outside Immokalee.

Susan Salisbury, "Crop Harvesters Hurting For Insurance," Palm Beach Post, December 15, 2002. Candace Rondeaux, "Fear and knowing in Immokalee," St. Petersburg Times, December 1, 2002. Kelly Wolfe, "Immigrant smugglers sentenced," Palm Beach Post, November 21, 2002.

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