Slavery alive in Florida agriculture industry
© St. Petersburg Times
With more regularity, federal officials who monitor farm labor issues are digging out the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Written in 1865, it officially ended slavery in America. Again, the 13th Amendment "officially" ended slavery.
In reality, 136 years later, "modern-day slavery" is alive and well in the nation's agricultural states, and Florida is a leader in the exploitation of human chattel, with five slavery cases having gone through the courts in as many years.
Most recently, on June 27, brothers Juan and Ramiro Ramos, along with their cousin, Jose Ramos, were convicted in U.S. District Court in Fort Pierce on federal charges of conspiring to hold as many as 700 migrant laborers as slaves, threatening them with violence and holding them as hostages over alleged debts of $1,000. The men will be sentenced in November. They could face up to 25 years in prison and lose more than $3-million in property.
They would charge desperate, undocumented workers $1,000 to smuggle them by trailer from Arizona to the citrus groves of Lake Placid in Okeechobee County. The migrants could gain their freedom only after paying the $1,000.
Trouble was, many workers could never pay the money because of the other expenses the Ramoses tacked on. To prevent the workers from escaping, the crew leaders kept them under surveillance and threatened them with physical violence or death. Over the years, many workers have been severely beaten for trying to escape.
The Ramos abuses came to light because of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers -- the same farm worker advocacy group that Gov. Jeb Bush's personal farm labor emissary claims is part of the so-called "Mexican lobby." Officials with the FBI and the Border Patrol in West Palm Beach said they had investigated the case for two years before moving in.
But the viciousness of the Ramos case pales alongside that of Michael Allen Lee of Fort Pierce. Last year, he was sentenced to four years in prison and three years of supervised release. For years, Lee, an African-American, recruited homeless black men off the streets of Central Florida with promises of high wages and the comforts of home.
The harsh reality is that Lee, now 44, himself a descendant of slaves, was a scary slave master. On average, a fruit picker in Florida can earn between $35 to $50 a day. But Lee's pickers rarely brought home more than $10. He forced workers to live in houses that he owned, where he sometimes put 15 to 20 men together in four bedrooms and charged each $30 apiece a week. They would sleep on floor mats.
Closely guarded, the men awoke before 5 each morning, rode in crammed vans to convenience stores, where Lee would give them $3 to $5 for breakfast and lunch. They worked in the groves until 6 in the evening, or later, and were driven back to their living quarters.
Lee provided a mandatory, cheap evening meal. In a secret ledger, he charged his workers for rent, food, transportation, drinks and drugs and whatever else he could get away with. A man who earned $500 week, for example, could wind up keeping only $150 after Lee's deductions.
The workers were forced to remain silent. Those who complained or tried to escape were dealt with harshly. Take the case of George Williams, who died before Lee was convicted. When Williams complained too much, Lee had him held down while he beat him within an inch of his life, federal officials said.
These are just two cases of farm worker enslavement. Lillian Hirales, an attorney with the Migrant Farmworker Justice Project in Lake Worth, said that thousands of undocumented workers, mostly Mexicans, are being enslaved in Florida each year. She, like other advocates, cite lax enforcement of regulations and the grower-labor contractor (crew boss) system.
Under this system, growers hire contractors, who then hire the pickers, keep track of them, house them and pay them. Everyone, including the governor and his emissary, knows that this egregious loophole lets farmers off the hook. Sure, Lee is behind bars, and the Ramoses may be on their way there. But rest assured, the farmers who hired them have replaced them with crew leaders.
Laura Germino, a representative of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, identifies the root of the problem: "It's time now that the agriculture industry take a look at itself and decide that it's not going to operate under the rules of the past and continue beating and holding workers by force."
The time has come for Gov. Jeb Bush to step up and put his moral weight behind this worthy crusade.
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