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July 2004, Volume 10, Number 3


Florida: Laws, Trafficking, Tomatoes

Florida in May 2004 revived the Florida Agricultural Workers Safety Act (FAWS), which expired in 1998. HB 1307 increases penalties from $1,000 to $2,500 on contractors who do not keep records of work done by farm workers, requires pesticide safety training, and prohibits FLCs from requiring workers to obtain housing or to buy goods from them. The Florida Department of Agriculture will get four new enforcement officers to monitor the practices of labor contractors, whose registration fees will rise from $75 to $275.

In signing the law in Immokalee, Gov. Jeb Bush said "Farm workers are as deserving of respect as any other workers in the state because of the importance of agriculture." Farm and worker groups generally endorsed the revived FAWS, which was named after Alfredo Bahena, who came to the United States as a teenager, fought for pesticide protections, and died in an auto accident in April 2004. Florida has 3,600 licensed farm labor contractors.

The new law creates a Legislative Commission on Migrant and Seasonal Labor to supervise and coordinate migrant labor programs geared to improve worker living conditions, health, housing and sanitation as well as knowledge of labor laws, education, transportation and public assistance. The new law repeals a provision of Florida's workers compensation law that gave families of Mexican and other foreign migrant workers half the worker compensation death benefits American and Canadian migrant workers receive.

Many farm workers ride in vans to work, and are transported in vans from Florida up the eastern seaboard. In April 2004, nine were killed and 10 injured after their van rolled over four times on I-95 in Fort Pierce. In June 2004, two were killed when a van built for seven, but with 11 workers, overturned on I-95 in Martin county; most of the men had no identification.

Trafficking. Juan Ramos, a citrus labor contractor from Lake Placid, was sentenced to 15 years in prison and $20,000 in fines in May 2004 for conspiracy and for harboring 100 Mexican workers against their will. The Ramos brothers and a cousin were convicted in November 2002 but appealed; the cousin was exonerated, and the 12-year sentence Juan received was overturned.

The three were arrested in May 2001 following a two-year investigation that concluded they had recruited more than 600 illegal Mexican migrants and prevented them from leaving the poor housing in which they were held. The Ramos' attorney asked the judge for leniency because "This business of harboring illegal immigrants is widespread" in the citrus industry.

Tomatoes. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers has been boycotting Yum Brands Taco Bell restaurants since 2001, charging that Taco Bell has not pressured Florida tomato growers to raise the piece rate for picking tomatoes. In June 2004, Yum sent a check for $110,000 to the CIW, saying it represented one cent a pound for the Florida tomatoes it bought.

The CIW says that 2,000 workers harvest tomatoes in Florida, and that their piece rate wages for picking tomatoes have not been raised from current rates of about $0.40 per 32-pound bucket. Taco Bell says it offered restaurant jobs to dissatisfied tomato pickers, but none applied. Growers say that changed farming practices have increased average worker productivity from 12 buckets an hour in 1980 to 22 buckets an hour in 2003. Tomatoes are Florida's No. 1 vegetable crop, with 70 commercial growers generating revenues of about $400 million a year.

Trade. Brazil in May 2004 withdrew a two-year-old complaint at the World Trade Organization against a $40 a metric ton Florida state tax on Brazilian orange juice imports. The money from the so-called equalizing excise tax was used to finance advertising campaigns for Florida juice. Under the settlement, importers will pay a third as much tax, which will be used to finance research. Brazil exported 1.1 million tons of frozen orange juice in 2003 worth $1.3 billion, with 85 percent going to Europe.

Phil Long And Ronnie Greene, "Gov. Bush signs bill improving life for farmworkers," Miami Herald, May 14, 2004. John-Thor Dahlburg, "Squeezed Into Oblivion?" Los Angeles Times, May 14, 2004. "Slavery charges send man to prison," Fort Pierce Tribune, May 4, 2004.

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