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Who is for the farm worker?

By BILL MAXWELL
Published March 14, 2004

Florida Gov. Jeb Bush is touting legislation to improve the lives of Florida's 300,000-plus farm workers, who endure institutional and systemic injustices each day in our fields and groves and their personal lives.

Bush suddenly got religion during this presidential election season and decided to back laws that would make employers guilty of a felony if they jeopardize workers' health. The legislation also would bring back a neglected labor review board, require employers to inform workers of the dangers of pesticides and encourage workers to report violations on a toll-free telephone line.

These long-overdue measures sound reasonable until I see who joined Bush as he announced the legislation: three state lawmakers who are growers in their home districts. And I was disappointed that Bush intoned that "the vast majority of Florida's farm labor contractors, or crew chiefs as they're known, operate well within the law. The legislation we're announcing today targets those who don't."

In essence, Bush's proposal is a cleaned-up red herring, outlining an anemic effort to go after crew chiefs, the middlemen. It does not not go after the true culprits in this unethical system: the big shots who own the farms, the wealthy movers and shakers who control Florida's agribusiness.

Remember, agriculture is the state's second largest industry, hauling in annual sales of $7-billion. We are talking raw power - huge campaign contributions, quid pro quo, kingmaking.

Few farm worker advocates, strike organizers, lawyers or clergy, agree with Bush when he claims that most crew chiefs operate legally.

When a crew operates illegally, the grower who hired him is responsible. The crew chief system is nothing but sleight of hand. Rich growers hire subcontractors to handle the day-to-day matters related to the laborers - pay (including income taxes and Social Security), housing, transportation to and from the fields, insurance and medical care.

As practiced in Florida, it is a vicious system that absolves the growers of any responsibility for the plight of their field hands. Bush's legislation would merely increase from $1,000 to $2,500 the maximum penalty levied against abusers. As far as I am concerned, the crew boss system is immoral primarily because it practices intentional cruelty.

Several companies have been sued, for example, for cheating workers by "doctoring" their hours, a scheme that lets growers avoid paying minimum wage. Growers also save money by not informing their workers about the dangerous pesticides they are exposed to. Underaged children still work in some fields. Crew leaders are permitted to pack as many as 25 workers into tiny trailers, charging each worker as much as $50 a week. Most farm workers do not have health insurance, and vacation is virtually nonexistent. Many of the vehicles that transport farm workers are unsafe and uninsured.

In short, it is a system that abuses the weak - the disenfranchised - for profit.

Levying fines against a handful of crew chiefs and holding well-publicized news conferences will not fix this system of human exploitation.

The ugly truth is that moral arguments carry little, if any, weight with Florida's antilabor politicians and consumers who demand inexpensive, fresh, unblemished produce.

The time has come for earnest, politically unencumbered legislation that deals with the root cause of migrant farm worker poverty in Florida and other parts of the nation. Florida's farm labor problems are the nation's farm labor problems because migrants travel from state to state to survive, and they suffer the same abuses wherever they work.

What is the root cause of perpetual poverty among farm workers?

In her book The Fruits of Their Labor, Cindy Hahamovitch, a professor at the College of William and Mary, writes: "Conditions remain dismal . . . not because poverty is an inevitable feature of modern agriculture or because crew leaders trap migrants into a new sort of debt peonage. They are dismal because the federal government intervened on behalf of growers, undermining farm workers' bargaining power and relieving growers of the need to recruit labor by improving wages and conditions."

The federal government and the states can improve the plight of farm workers by not automatically intervening for growers when labor problems need to be fixed or when such fixes will cost growers money.

Lawmakers can transform the lives of farm workers overnight by committing the ultimate act of legislative decency and common sense: Give farm workers the right to bargain collectively, without being harassed or terrorized.

But growers do not want farm workers to organize. To assist growers in keeping their workers powerless, Congress excluded farm workers from the Wagner Act, the National Labor Relations Act, the National Labor Relations Board, the Fair Labor Standards Act and other labor legislation and panels.

Gov. Bush should start the process of getting Florida out of the business of abuse and put the state on the high road on behalf of farm workers by establishing a labor relations act that spells out the specific rights of farm workers and the duties of growers. At the same time, a viable labor relations board that includes farm worker representatives - chosen by farm workers - should be established. The board would report directly to the governor. It would not be a rubber-stamping panel in bed with the growers. It would be one that recommends real, even unpopular, remedies.

Such a board is necessary in Florida because the state Department of Labor and the Department of Agriculture protect growers. No government department champions the rights of farm workers. Everything is done for management.

Again, a cornerstone of Florida's labor relations act for farm workers would be the right to bargain collectively. Without the ability to organize, farm workers cannot galvanize their interests and demand a seat at the negotiating table. Name another labor force that lacks the right to talk directly to management. As matters stand, farm workers rarely see management face-to-face.

I suspect that Florida growers are winking and nodding as Gov. Bush announces measures ostensibly intended to help farm workers. But regulations alone are not enough. The state also must allocate enough money to put independent inspectors in the fields and groves. And here is the bottom line: Growers must be held legally accountable for the treatment of their laborers.

[Last modified March 14, 2004, 01:05:29]


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