Advocates don't feel labor department is ally

Farmworker advocates say the federal government does little to protect the laborers whose sweat brings fruit and vegetables to the state's tables.

Now they fear even less protection. The head of the agency overseeing farm work conditions recently told Florida growers that she wants to work with - not against - them.

``If you have an issue with an investigator [who cites you], you shouldn't just pay the money. Go up the chain of command and complain. You will get fair treatment from us,'' Tammy McCutchen, the U.S. Department of Labor's wage and hour administrator, told growers in Orlando last year, according to an industry publication.

Her comments were viewed by many growers as ``the most encouraging they had heard from a Department of Labor administrator in years,'' Gempler's Alert newsletter said. Her remarks came at a time when the department faced dwindling investigative staffing.

In an interview with The Herald, McCutchen said critics are mistaken if they accuse her office of lax supervision.

She said her approach is to work with companies that act in ``good faith'' and if farmers don't work to fix flaws, ``we will hit them hard with enforcement.''

``If you can get employers to voluntarily comply early on, you can do a lot better job for the workers. Instead of waiting two or three years for litigation, you are able to fix the problem in a few weeks or a few months.''

Statistics from wage and hour show the division collected 30 percent more in back wages for agriculture workers last year than a year earlier.

In fiscal year 2002, it assessed $230,600 in civil penalties against growers and contractors in the Southeast.

``Defending one of our lawsuits cost [growers] that much,'' said Rob Williams, director of the Migrant Farmworker Justice Project of Florida Legal Services, which has tangled with growers over wage and other inequities.

He believes McCutchen's message means that enforcement will be rarer still.

McCutchen had also told growers that a checklist used to inspect migrant housing would be significantly pared down, to weed out minor items in order to focus on major housing concerns. She said her own inspectors would undergo ``professional conduct'' training to improve relations with growers they inspect.

Other numbers support critics' concerns. The wage and hour division had 945 investigators to examine agriculture and other industries at the end of fiscal year 2001, but 862 as of March. In Florida, the number dipped from 77 to 73 in January 2003. ``I'm very proud of our enforcement efforts, no matter what the raw numbers show,'' McCutchen said.

Last year, the Labor Department conducted an informal study to see how many growers and contractors were in compliance with the four main provisions of the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act. It found:

* Thirty-nine percent did not comply with the law's disclosure rules, which require employers to inform workers of their rights.

* Twenty-six percent did not comply with housing safety and health rules.

* Ten percent to 15 percent did not comply with various transportation requirements.

* Nine percent did not comply with wage laws.

Although the federal agency is more apt to punish labor contractors, it sometimes goes after farmers.

In August 2002, it fined West Coast Tomato $3,650 for operating a Manatee County camp in squalid condition.

Former Manatee County Commissioner Daniel P. McClure is president of West Coast, the ninth-largest vegetable grower in the Southeast.

At 6747 Prospect Rd. in Bradenton, inspectors found the roof rotting and leaking. The garage was used as a sleeping room, four beds on the floor. Gas tanks had been installed without a permit.

McClure, who lives in a Bradenton mansion with a $1.6 million market value, had blamed the camp conditions on a former crew boss.

``That's past history, fella,'' McClure said, declining interview requests. ``Sounds like you're looking for some way to sensationalize the news. If you want to talk about the past, don't come.''

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