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October 2003, Volume 9, Number 4

Florida: Oranges, Housing; Texas

The Miami Herald ran a series of articles entitled "Fields of Pain" beginning on August 31, 2003, charging that Black recruiters were targeting homeless shelters and similar places to induce poor black Americans to work under near-slave debt peonage conditions. Worker advocates say that most seasonal farm jobs are "so bad that the only people who are going to do farm work are undocumented aliens or crack addicts."

According to the series, the villains are farm labor contractors and the growers who use them. Florida has 3,027 of the 8,832 registered FLCs in the US. Since 1996, 12 Florida FLCs have been sentenced to prison, and 200 have had their licenses revoked. Some FLCs lend money to workers, and charge $1 interest for each $1 lent; many prevent workers from leaving the camps they operate until they repay debts. Those who staff homeless centers say that farmers must know where their FLCs get workers, but farmers interviewed in the series said that the FLCs they hired were employers in their own right, and that they knew nothing about FLC recruitment or housing practices.

The articles reviewed the cases of FLCs convicted for slavery and debt peonage, noting that Abel Cuello Jr received $24 per 1,000 pounds of tomatoes picked at Manley Farms North Inc., and was eventually sentenced to 33 months in prison for holding workers in involuntary servitude. He is now back in business, operating as E&B Harvesting & Trucking Inc in Naples.

Brothers Ramiro and Juan Ramos were sentenced to 10 and 12 years in prison in 2002 for involuntary servitude. Defense attorneys tried to implicate the employers who got workers through the Ramoses, asking Lykes Brothers why they did not hire orange pickers directly: "It is too expensive," the Lykes official replied. "We find it is a lot more efficient to use a contractor to provide the labor."

At their sentencing, U.S. District Judge K. Michael Moore said: "others at another level in this system of fruit-picking, at a higher level ... are complicit... They rely on migrant workers, and they create a legal fiction or corporation that insulates them between them and the workers themselves so that they can be relieved of any liability for the hiring of illegal immigrants. And yet they stand to benefit the most."

The US Department of Labor had 862 investigators to enforce wage and hour laws in all US industries in March 2003, and an informal survey of Florida farm employer compliance with the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act found that 39 percent did not fully disclose wages and working conditions, 26 percent did not comply fully with housing rules, and nine percent did not comply with wage laws.

Oranges. Florida produces two-thirds of US oranges, and 95 percent are processed into juice. Oranges have been picked by hand, with workers climbing ladders and putting oranges into bags hung over their shoulders that weigh 60 to 70 pounds when full. Workers are paid about $0.80 for each 90-pound box that they pick. The bags are dumped into plastic tubs that hold about 900 pounds of fruit, and then these tubs are dumped into trucks and taken to processing plants. Growers pay about $1.60 per 90-pound box to have oranges picked and loaded into trucks.

Florida has 580,000 acres of oranges, and 16,000 acres are picked by machine, especially in newer groves in southwestern Florida where branches are removed from the lower 30 inches of trees. The trunk-shake-catch system requires two operators to shake the fruit from each tree, while the continuous-canopy-shake-catch system requires six operators, but harvests more fruit per hour.

Housing. The largest US grape-tomato (smaller than cherry tomatoes) producer (Santa Sweet) was charged in September 2003 with housing hundreds of workers in motels that did not meet federal and state housing regulations in North Carolina. North Carolina inspects about 1,600 migrant camps a year, but did not know about the camp west of Wilmington, created after Philadelphia-based Procacci Brothers Sales Corp bought timber land and converted it to tomato-growing land.

Procacci says that the crew leaders were responsible for worker housing. Ag-Mart, another Procacci firm, was sued by 800 workers in Florida for not providing adequate housing.

The Collier County housing authority is building a $3.5 million, 192-bed dormitory unit for solo men in Immokalee, Florida; beds in the air-conditioned units will cost $7 a day.

Manatee County, Florida with an estimated 18,000 farm workers and dependents, has been offered a $3 million USDA grant to build a 40-unit farm worker housing complex. Neighbors, including the director of the local Rural Health Services, opposed the complex for being placed in an area with single family homes.

A Black man was found hanged in Belle Glade, a farming town of 15,000 on the southern shore of Lake Okeechobee in western Palm Beach County, prompting Blacks to talk of a lynching and whites to call the death a suicide. State Representative James "Hank" Harper says Belle Glade is a plantation, with the city's workers employed on local vegetable and sugar cane farms, and some blame area growers for blocking major development to ensure a ready supply of workers.

Southeast. The AEWR for Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina is $7.49 an hour in 2003, which farmers say is too high. Henry Williams, owner of Mulberry Sod Farm in Chilton County, Alabama said: "We tried for years to hire domestics, but there's no one that's an American citizen that wants to pick peaches eight hours a day, six days a week when it's 90 degrees."

Texas. The 825,000-acre King Ranch Inc is a $300-million-a-year operation in south Texas with 60,000 cattle. King Ranch sold its foreign operations, and became the top US citrus producer with Consolidated Citrus in Southern Florida; it also has 12,000 acres for growing sugar cane and 3,000 for sod in Florida, and grows cotton on its main operation in south Texas. However, selling leases to quail hunters generates as much revenue as cattle in south Texas, and there is talk of ecotourism.

Jeffery McMurray, "Formula for foreign pay rate called unfair," AP September 1, 2003. Ronnie Greene, "Fields of Despair," Miami Herald, August 31-September 2, 2003.

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