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Migrant farm worker abuse continues

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By BILL MAXWELL

© St. Petersburg Times,
published November 28, 2001


LAKE WORTH -- The outpouring of good will following the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon has not trickled down to the tens of thousands of laborers who plant, tend and harvest our bounty.

For them, mostly Hispanics, the lack of caring on the part of the rest of the nation is nothing new. Time has stood still for this population.

On Thanksgiving Day, 1960, Edward R. Murrow stunned the nation with his Harvest of Shame, the landmark documentary that highlighted the conditions under which Palm Beach County migrants lived and worked. More than 40 years later, farm workers labor and live under many of the same oppressive and dehumanizing conditions.

And as matters were in 1960, growers and their powerful friends in the seats of power -- governors and the president of the United States included -- continue to ignore the pleas of farm workers.

With the support of legal aid lawyers, a handful of private citizens and clergy, farm workers struggle to get an uncaring nation to listen. Most recently, eight migrant and seasonal farm workers filed a class-action lawsuit two days before Thanksgiving in the U.S. District Court in West Palm Beach.

The field hands accuse Mecca Farms Inc. of systematically underpaying them for picking tomatoes and other crops. Specifically, the workers, who represent at least 400 others, argue that Mecca Farms failed to pay the federal minimum wage, maintain accurate payroll records, ensure that the transportation provided to the workers complied with federal safety standards and pay or ensure payment of Social Security (FICA) taxes.

The suit seeks unspecified damages, but attorneys for the farm workers estimate that unpaid wages alone total hundreds of thousands of dollars. Mecca Farms, based in Lantana, is one of Florida's largest tomato growers. Mecca Farms' labor contractors Rogerio Rodriguez, Maria T. Sanchez and M. Sanchez & Son Inc. also are defendants in the suit.

The abuses of growers and their contractors result not only in workers being underpaid for back-breaking work but also in physical injuries and death.

Last April, for example, a van driven by a farm labor contractor hired by Mecca Farms crashed into another vehicle on Interstate 95. Two workers were taken to nearby hospitals. The severity of the injuries was increased by the conditions of the vehicle, which lacked seat belts.

"The April accident is an all too common event," says Cathleen Caron, one of the plaintiffs' attorneys. "Farm workers are at risk across the state because the agricultural community turns a blind eye to unsafe conditions under which its workers are brought to labor in its fields every day."

Two of the plaintiffs named in the case were injured in the accident.

The suit is not the first time Mecca Farms has come under pressure for violating federal standards protecting farm workers. In 1995, the U.S. Department of Labor levied a $15,000 civil penalty against the company for violations similar to the ones alleged in the current suit. One of its contractors, Rogerio Rodriguez, also has been the subject of several Department of Labor investigations. Each time, though, he is slapped on the hand. His worst punishment was a $1,000 fine in 1991.

Growers skirt all responsibility for their workers by hiring labor contractors, unscrupulous middlemen who handle the workers' daily welfare. Two Florida lawmakers, black Democrats, introduced a bill last year that would have corrected some of the problems, but the effort was shot down the GOP-led Legislature. This contractor arrangement is at the heart of the blatant abuses farm workers suffer. American growers, especially those in Florida, claim that because of their generosity, Mexican workers live the "life of Riley" in the United States.

"A Mecca Farms spokesman is the champion of saying that the Mexicans treat their workers so poorly on Mexican farms, while we treat our workers so much better here," said Caron, who is with the Migrant Farmworker Justice of Lake Worth. "But when you look, American growers' immediate reaction is "we're not their employer.' "

"At the same time that they're willing to say bad labor standards exist in Mexico, they're refusing to even look to see if they're complying with the labor standards here. They flatly refuse to accept responsibility. They pretend that their contractors are following the law, which is not happening. It's hypocritical. No one is listening to us. The agricultural lobby strong. We're very frustrated."

No date for the trial has been set. Meanwhile, the vicious cycle of farm-worker abuse in Florida and the rest of the nation continues.

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