Speakers address the plight of seasonal farmworkers in Florida
As the U.S. economy worsens, seasonal farmworkers are among the hardest hit in Florida. Without the ability to choose their salaries or improve their working conditions, farmworkers face day-to-day challenges.
A Nov. 19 discussion titled, “Modern day slavery: The plight of farmworkers in Florida,” brought together activists and UF law students to address farmworkers’ struggle for justice. The event was presented by the Public Service Fellows of the Center for Government Responsibility, which is sponsored by The Florida Bar Foundation.
Guest speaker Jose Antonio Tovar, a UF Ph.D. student in anthropology and a field worker for The Farmworker Association of Florida, said that few agricultural companies provide farmers with housing, transportation and safety training. As a field worker, Tovar has trained farmers during their lunch breaks.
“We teach them about the use of safety goggles and safety equipment in the fields,” Tovar said.
Until 2004, the agriculture industry was exempt from Florida’s Right-to-Know law that requires employers to inform workers about the chemicals being used in the workplace.
“Pesticides are a big concern on our part,” Tovar said.
According to guest speaker Roberta Perry, Florida Director for the National Farm Worker Ministry, women experience particular problems in the fields. Some growers place portable toilets far away from work areas and keep them locked, causing female workers to contract bladder infections.
“They don’t want to pay to have them cleaned,” Perry said.
Tovar estimated that at least 75 percent of farmworkers in the orange industry are illegal. Many of the workers are indigenous people from Mexico who come to Florida because they lack the means to produce the food they need to survive.
“It’s a pretty diverse population,” Tovar said. “There are a lot of people whose first language is not Spanish.”
Communication barriers and the fear of deportation deter workers from complaining to police about labor conditions.
“They are afraid that the sheriff is going to come and question them about their legal status,” Tovar said. “If the worker doesn’t speak Spanish, that increases the problem,” he said.
Perry and Tovar explained the positive impacts of the federal government’s H-2A temporary agricultural program on farmworkers with illegal status.
H-2A workers have higher salaries and pay taxes. In North Carolina, workers were even allowed to unionize with growers’ consent.
“Orange farmers are choosing to go back to Mexico to be rehired as H-2As,” Tovar said.
According to Perry, one reason for poor working conditions is a lack of safety inspectors. There are currently about 44,000 farming units in Florida and only 14 inspectors.
“Legislators will tell you that we have great laws, but the problem is that they are not funded for enforcement.”