Open Season on Farmworkers

Human Rights

Migrant farmworkers in the Southeast are exposed to the worst living and working conditions of any region in the nation.

These workers are frequently housed in uninhabitable shacks lacking basic plumbing systems and exposed daily to harmful pesticides in the fields. They also are cheated out of the money they earn and held as prisoners under unlawful peonage arrangements.

It's a system of abuses existing right under the nose of the government and the law, yet those in seats of power continue to look the other way, says Greg Schell, managing attorney for the Migrant Farmworker Justice Project in Florida.

Schell's organization works to assist Florida's 300,000 farmworkers through legal reform, advocacy and class action suits.

"Farmworkers today resemble those discriminated against during the era of the Civil Rights Movement. They are not represented under existing laws," said Schell, who has worked on the issue of farmworker justice for the last 24 years.

"It shouldn't be open season on these workers."

Open season, however, is exactly what it appears to be in many cases throughout the Southeast. The region is home to about two thirds of all peonage cases prosecuted.

Schell described cases where workers are smuggled into the country for an exorbitant fee. A crew boss who hires them for jobs in the fields often provides a ride to the job site, a place to sleep and even a supply of drugs or alcohol. The workers then find themselves laboring 60 to 100 hours a week to repay this "debt," never seeing most of the money they earn.

Many are threatened with violence or harm to themselves or their families if they attempt to leave before working off their debt. Those who would brave the violence often remain because they aren't paid enough of their earnings to afford to leave.

Though organizations like Schell's exist to help seek justice for victims of such abuses, the practice continues largely unabated because there is little legal recourse for illegal workers. In fact, 70 percent of farmworkers are undocumented. And even those who are documented or who are citizens often suffer injustices in silence because they fear deportation or retaliation.

It's a cycle fueled in part by existing federal regulations that fail to provide the same labor protections for farmworkers as for other types of laborers -- protections including overtime pay, workman's compensation, workplace insurance and even the right to have access to bathroom facilities on workplace grounds.

To Schell, the inconsistencies are outrageous.

"The guy at McDonald's who puts the lettuce and the tomato on the burger gets overtime pay. But the guy who works in the fields to harvest it doesn't," Schell said. "Why? I'm still waiting on that explanation."

Part of that explanation lies in who wields the power in the agriculture industry; the other part, in how farmers and farmworkers are perceived. Schell says farmers -- those who own the fields and groves on which migrant farmworkers labor -- have power and protections while farmworkers do not.

"The government is never going to take the side of the people who have no power against the side of people who have substantial power," said Schell. "The farmers know they can't be sued. There is no one out there to sue them."

In addition, Schell said the American farmer has always been viewed as virtuous, wholesome and decent. In contrast, he says migrant farmworkers often are viewed as "happy wanderers without the same needs, goals and objectives as everyone else."

Schell also sees the lack of knowledge among the general public as partly to blame for rampant farmworker abuses. Many, he says, question why they should be concerned.

"I've seen juries stick out their chests and nod their heads when someone makes a statement like, 'What are these people complaining for? Aren't they better off here than where they came from?'" Instead of questioning the system that allows farmworkers to be abused, Schell says many question why the workers come here to begin with if conditions here are so unjust. It's a simple answer, he says.

"Only 10 percent of the land in Mexico is arable. These people want to support their families and they come here out of desperation. They want the old adage: an honest day's pay for an honest day's work."

Educating the public about what goes on in the industry stands to play a huge role in changing the culture of farmworker abuse. "We have to get people to recognize that once these protections erode for one group of people, what's to stop it from happening to another group?" Schell said.

In some areas like California, where large numbers of Latinos are registered voters, increased public education has led to the passing of state laws against farmworker abuse. As the Latino voter base grows in other areas and as people learn more about these issues, Schell says more states will follow California's lead and start to pass their own laws. But he acknowledges passing state laws is only one part of the picture.

Schell says if organizations like his are to ever make a real dent in the abusive practices within the farmworker industry, they will have to go after those who are reaping the financial benefits. He used the orange juice industry as an example.

An orange juice company doesn't own its orange trees, Schell said. Instead, it buys its fruit from farmers and grove owners via contracts to ensure the fruit it needs gets picked. The farmer hires a crew boss to find and oversee workers. It sounds like a simple enough operation. But Schell says these companies take great pains to make sure the right oranges are picked at the right times on the right days and delivered to the right plants, placing their people all over the groves to make certain this takes place.

"It's like fine choreography," said Schell, suggesting these companies are intimately involved in the day-to-day operations on these groves. "At the end of the day, we want to hold [them] responsible when these workers who are picking and providing them with this fruit don't get paid what they should."

Going after those who are making the most money, Schell says, will speak loudest. "We've seen that if you depend on human kindness and decency to change this, you are not going to get very far. We want to make it as costly as possible to send a strong message." said Schell. "When you win, it's not about the money. It's about empowering the workers to take control of their lives."

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