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A bit of justice for farm workers

By BILL MAXWELL, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 1, 2002


SAN ANGELO, Texas -- I was happy when farm-worker advocates telephoned to tell me that three men I have written about -- brothers Juan and Ramiro Ramos and their cousin Jose Ramos -- were going to prison for a long time and would forfeit $3-million in proceeds for enslaving and otherwise brutalizing citrus pickers in Lake Placid, Fla.

The convictions and sentencing thrilled farm-labor advocates, especially members of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers who uncovered the crimes nearly two years ago.

Perhaps the best news, however, was U.S. District Judge K. Michael Moore's comments during sentencing. He suggested what advocates and workers always have known, that Florida's citrus industry is brutal and corrupt from top to bottom.

"Others at a higher level of the fruit picking industry seem complicit in one way or another with how these activities occur," Moore said, after sentencing the Ramoses. "I think there is a broader interest out there the government should look into as well."

Moore is absolutely right.

Fruit pickers, along with tomato pickers, have complained for years about abuses in pay, housing, transportation, insurance, vacation, safety and other issues the majority of other Americans take for granted. I, along with a handful of other writers, have tried to no avail to get our governors to take an interest in farm workers' complaints. They have turned their backs on these workers.

Most recently, Jeb Bush made a big deal about listening to farm workers, through the Immokalee group, while he was campaigning for the office of governor four years ago. Shortly after winning the election, though, he took the advice of an aide and stopped talking to the workers. His aide referred to the Immokalee group as minions of the so-called "Mexican lobby."

This is the same group of advocates who helped Judge Moore finally put the Ramos citrus clan behind bars. Moore did not see them as fronts for the Mexican lobby. If the governor and other state officials did their job, many citrus and tomato moguls would be jailed and fined for perpetuating a system that lets subcontrators abuse workers.

The biggest problem, of course, is that the governor and other elected officials are friends and cohorts of the growers. They are the same privileged class of men. The concerns of groups such as the Coalition of Immokalee Workers are routinely dismissed, and the organizers are labeled as troublemakers and outside agitators.

To his credit, Judge Moore commented as he did. The Ramoses enslaved as many as 700 workers for more than two years. That sort of thing should not happen in Florida or anywhere else in the nation. Court testimony revealed that some pickers labored from morning to night, earning as little as $6 a day after their smuggling fees were deducted.

One ugly truth is while politicians and growers publicly decry the presence of undocumented workers, they depend on such workers to keep their profits high and their lavish lifestyles humming.

But I would tell only half the truth if I did not discuss Florida consumers. Floridians, like consumers nationwide, enjoy the most inexpensive, attractive and healthful produce, the best meat and the most beautiful ornamentals in the world.

Why? Because we permit the abuse of those who harvest our bounty -- those ubiquitous Mexicans and Central Americans whose exemplary work ethic we take advantage of.

Florida consumers apparently care more about abuses in a Thailand sweatshop or a South African diamond mine than they do about the wrongs perpetrated against orange pickers in the next county or tomato pickers 10 miles up the road.

Until average consumers start caring and speaking out, the governor and others will never act to make life better for farm workers and their families.

Judge Moore's sentencing of the Ramoses comes at a good time, during the yuletide season, when giving and thanksgiving are on everyone's lips. I cannot think of a better time for consumers to seriously consider the plight of farm workers, to encourage the governor, other elected officials and growers to stop the abuse of those who feed and clothe us.

Slavery, like that the Ramoses practiced with impunity -- with nods and winks from growers and their political cronies -- should never occur in Florida or any other part of America.

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