The ties that bind

In Florida, politics and produce are intertwined.

Agricultural interests have poured at least $35 million into state and federal political campaigns in Florida since 1996, powerful proof of the industry's ties with decision-makers.

Yet the ties run deeper than campaign cash to candidates, committees and parties. The House Committee on Agriculture, which helps shape state laws over the industry, is stacked with politician-farmers.

Seven of the committee's 14 members are growers or have ties to agriculture, their financial-disclosure forms show. The influential chairwoman, Marsha ``Marty'' Bowen, R-Winter Haven, is a citrus grower.

Advocates seeking to overhaul agriculture's darkest corners often encounter dead ends. This year, two farmworker reform bills died in the Legislature without even a vote.

Advocates view the defeats as part of a larger pattern in which growers remain largely unscathed while workers toil under arduous conditions.

``If there weren't any state troopers on the highway, I'd probably drive faster,'' said Gregory S. Schell, a Lake Worth lawyer with the Migrant Farmworker Justice Project of Florida Legal Services. ``There aren't any state troopers on the labor highway.''

``Passing pro-farmworker legislation in this state - forget it,'' Schell said.

Abuse abounds in agriculture-rich Florida. Five slavery prosecutions since 1996 have sent Sunshine State crew bosses and smugglers to prison, hundreds of crew chiefs have had their licenses revoked for skirting laws, and a Herald review exposed ongoing exploitation in North Florida farm country.

This year, Rep. Frank Peterman Jr., D-St. Petersburg, tried to trigger change.

A church pastor as well as a state legislator, Peterman said he was inspired after a group from the Coalition of Immokalee Workers came to his church two years ago, prompting him to visit workers in the field.

``I was moved spiritually to take on their issue in the state Legislature,'' said Peterman, now pastor of The Rock of Jesus Missionary Baptist Church in St. Petersburg. ``I haven't stopped since.''

He once spearheaded a campaign to provide long-sleeve T-shirts to more than 3,000 state farmworkers - long-sleeve so workers wouldn't get cuts and infections from pesticides. Last year, he pushed a bill that did pass that precludes farm contractors from profiting from equipment they provide to workers. That minor measure took two years to gain approval.

POWERFUL INDUSTRYWages and pesticidebills fail to go anywhere

At this year's session, he proposed two bills. One would allow workers to sue growers in state court if they were cheated on pay. The other would grant workers the right to data on pesticides.

Neither bill made it to the floor for a vote.

``The root of the problem is that politicians throughout Florida know that agriculture is a powerful interest in this state, and you don't want to get on the wrong side of them,'' said Rob Williams, director of the Migrant Farmworker Justice Project in Tallahassee, who helped craft the bills.

The wages bill went to the House committee headed by citrus grower Bowen. In December 2001, she listed a net worth of $872,300, with her largest assets a residence, citrus grove, barn and pasture in Haines City. Her largest income source was Bowen Brothers Inc., a family business in Dundee.

``Agriculture is a major contributor to the state's economy [In 2000, total cash receipts were $6.95 billion],'' Bowen wrote in response to Herald questions. ``It behooves the Agriculture Committee, and the Legislature as a whole, to have committee members knowledgeable of the subject being regulated.''

Twice in March, Peterman wrote to her, asking that she put the wages bill on the agenda ``at your earliest convenience.'' Rep. Marco Rubio, R-Miami, was a co-sponsor. On the Senate side, a companion measure was proposed by Sen. Mandy Dawson, D-Fort Lauderdale, and Anthony C. Hill Sr., D-Jacksonville.

``This bill is a remedy for unpaid wages to Migrant Workers,'' Peterman wrote to Bowen. ``The bill guarantees payment of wages by persons utilizing the services of Farm Labor Contractors.''

It never happened. Said Peterman: ``It didn't move.''

Bowen did not respond to requests for an interview but did provide written answers.

She said she requested that Peterman come and discuss both bills with her. ``Such discussion was not held,'' she wrote.

Yet she made clear that she opposed the measures.

She said the wages bill was aimed at the wrong party.

``If workers are not receiving minimum wage, most likely it is a labor subcontractor who is at fault,'' Bowen wrote. ``The grower is not responsible for the actions of a subcontractor.''

Of the pesticide measure, she wrote: ``There are existing federal regulations covering pesticide use. I don't believe there is a need to adopt more regulations that mirror those already in existence.''

Another committee member, Rep. Dwight Stansel, D-Live Oak, is a full-time farmer. Stansel said he believes the criminal cases brought to light thus far are ``the exception, not the rule.''

``I'm going to be real reluctant to put a lot more restrictions,'' Stansel said.

These legislators' views mirror those of industry groups.

``My God, we've got enough laws we've got to live with without having more,'' said Walter Kates, director of the Division of Labor Relations for the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association, a trade group.

Farmworkers can sue growers in federal court now. Wage-bill proponents counter that federal cases can take years to course through the system, bogging down in legal disputes over whether growers are co-employers of the workers.

Williams, of the Migrant Farmworker Justice Project, said the new law would say simply: ``If you employ a farm labor contractor, you guarantee the workers are going to be paid the minimum wage.''

Others who work to expose abuse of farmworkers say the wage bill would have made a difference.

``The belief is, the day after that bill is passed, the grower will call in the contractor. `I don't care how it's been done in the past. It's a new day,' '' said Douglas Molloy, a Fort Myers federal prosecutor who has handled farmworker slavery cases.

Industry officials say work sites already post pesticide information. Bill proponents say postings are spotty and the proposal would have allowed workers to get more detailed data about pesticide dangers simply by asking.

Peterman called the pesticide bill a ``no-brainer . . . public health for human beings.''

ABUSE ACKNOWLEDGEDBut committee membersdon't blame the growers

Some House Agriculture Committee members say that farmworker conditions have improved but acknowledge that abuse still occurs.

``I know what happens out there,'' said Rep. Richard A. Machek, D-Delray Beach, who spent 40 years in the industry. ``These labor contractors rent these old labor camps, and they allow the employee to run up a tab at the little commissary or they front them some money. They never can pay it back. It's like one of these loan sharks. This is the 21st century. Things like that shouldn't be happening.'' But even then, Machek said he is reluctant to blame growers.

``If he writes a check to the labor contractor and the labor contractor doesn't pay the employee, I don't know [if] that should be the farmer's responsibility,'' he said.

Machek said the industry is already struggling to keep its market share against countries such as citrus-rich Brazil - forcing the farmer to produce his crop for the least amount of money he can.

Rep. Baxter G. Troutman, R-Winter Haven, who described himself as a small citrus grower, said the industry's role is so vital that the Legislature must be sure that bad legislation is not written.

``There is already so much environmental, statutory, global marketplace pressure on the farmer these days,'' said Troutman, who owns 122 acres of Central Florida citrus groves valued at more than $1 million.

The U.S. Department of Labor's wage and hour division enforces laws that include the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act, which sets rules regarding pay, housing and transportation.

The federal agency has gone after some of Florida's most troubled contractor crew bosses, the middlemen employed by farmers to bring laborers to the fields. More than 200 contractors and top assistants are currently prohibited from working in that capacity, accounting for 43 percent of all those barred in the United States.

Yet crew leaders ``are just the puppets,'' said Lucas Benitez, co-founder of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a nonprofit group that rallies against worker abuse and has helped authorities uncover crimes.

He and others say those in higher positions hold the ultimate power. Yet they are punished less than crew bosses. Growers have not been prosecuted in any of the slavery cases.

``The white guys never go to jail,'' lawyer Schell said.

Some reformers believe change should come not only from growers but from large corporations that buy Florida fruits and vegetables in bulk.

``The real answer and long-term solution to slavery is getting those end users involved,'' said Greg Asbed, a staff member of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. ``It totally breaks the tired old stalemate.''

The coalition has targeted Yum! Brands Inc., the parent company of Taco Bell, which buys Florida tomatoes in bulk. The coalition notes that while Yum! reported more than $4 million in compensation for its chief executive officer last year, it buys tomatoes picked by workers struggling to get by.

Despite pickets at the Kentucky headquarters of Yum! and rallies across the United States, the company maintains that the dispute should be resolved by other parties. ``It certainly rests between the growers and [their] employees,'' said Laurie Gannon, a Taco Bell spokeswoman.

She said the companywants to be sure ``all the laws are being followed and that they are being treated fairly and earned minimum wage.''

Laura Germino, another coalition representative, contrasts the Yum! response to that of the chocolate industry two years ago after Knight Ridder Newspapers published an exposé of how child slavery tainted the chocolate industry.

Within days, chocolate manufacturers offered their support to combat slavery. Likewise, Germino said, agricultural interests ``have the market power to use their strength to do good.''

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