The governor announces a bill that seeks to protect farmworkers' health and give them a voice.
By STEVE BOUSQUET
Published March 9, 2004
TALLAHASSEE - Gov. Jeb Bush called for new laws Monday to protect Florida farmworkers from exploitation and to aggressively punish "the few in the industry who don't play by the rules."
Bush wants to make it a felony for an employer to risk a worker's health, to encourage workers to make complaints on a toll-free phone line, revive a dormant migrant labor review board and require employers to tell workers about the health risks of pesticides.
"The vast majority of Florida's farm labor contractors, or crew chiefs as they're known, operate well within the law," Bush said. "The legislation we're announcing today targets those who don't."
Worker advocates said Bush's call for change is a hopeful sign, but it doesn't go far enough. Some worry that growers have had too much clout in drafting legislation and that the bill does not hold growers accountable for using labor contractors as middlemen who exploit workers.
"We agree there are some bad actors out there, but we're concerned about a bad system," said Rob Williams of Florida Legal Services.
Bush's call for change comes at a time of increased competition for farm labor in Florida and reports of abuse in two newspapers. The Miami Herald and the Palm Beach Post documented how Florida has more cases of abuse of farmworkers than any other state.
The Herald reported cases of workers living in shanties, being driven to fields in trucks with no insurance and paying 100 percent interest on money they borrow from crew chiefs who employ them.
In recent weeks, the state has made two sweeps of farms for violations ranging from unsafe vehicles to children working during school hours. Bush's aides have been crafting a bill in talks with agriculture, farmworkers and the Catholic Church, among others.
At a press conference, Bush grew angry when he was asked whether the steps were timed for an election year in which his brother is running for re-election as president.
"These folks don't vote," Bush said of migrant workers. "I'm going to have to thicken my skin a little bit about all these stupid questions about elections and motivations that people have ... I'm really tired of the implications of people's motivations for being involved in good, solid public policy."
Williams, of Florida Legal Services, praised Bush for seeking higher registration fees on contractors to pay for better enforcement. But he said the new proposal creates categories of major and minor violations and that major violations were only those that posed "an imminent threat to the health, safety and welfare" of workers.
Defining an "imminent" threat will be a major issue, Williams said.
But the larger issue, Williams said, is that Bush seems to have accepted the growers' position that there are some "bad actors" who need to be weeded out. Williams said the system itself is the problem.
"It's a very competitive labor market where the bad contractors drive out the good contractors," Williams said. "The bottom line for the growers is who's willing to do the job for the least amount of money. ... Every time there's a big expose we go and tinker with the law. But we never ask the question, who's benefiting from the status quo?"
Agriculture is Florida's second largest industry, with $7-billion in sales each year. But just as Florida's oranges are a symbol of life in the Sunshine State, the state has a legacy of exploitation dating to a 1960 CBS documentary, Harvest of Shame.
Florida's agriculture industry also is a powerful political force, and has been a strong supporter of the governor. Bush emphasized Monday that the "vast majority" of crew chiefs "operate well within the law." All three state legislators who joined Bush at his announcement are growers back in their districts.
One of Bush's proposals has previously been championed by lawmakers in both parties, but it died last year. It would re-enact a law that requires employers to tell farmworkers about the risks posed by the pesticides used in the fields.
The chief sponsor of the proposal, Rep. Frank Peterman, a St. Petersburg Democrat, filed the bill again this year, and the office of Speaker Johnnie Byrd referred it to six committees for review, likely dooming its chances for passage.
Sen. JD Alexander, R-Lake Wales, said re-enacting worker protections against pesticide exposure are "expensive and burdensome," especially for small employers.
"But I've got to tell you, it's the right thing to do," he said.