Some state farmers agree that changes are needed

Some farmers say they have installed safeguards to prevent abuses plaguing Florida's farmworker industry.

Naples tomato farmer Gargiulo Inc., for instance, said it pays workers directly and uses crew chiefs like company foremen, not independent bosses.

``Their profit is the last thing that happens. The first person who gets paid is the worker,'' Tim Nance, director of eastern operations for Gargiulo, said at a company plant in Immokalee. ``It's in our best interest.''

Worker advocates say such arrangements are vital, since so many problems occur at the hands of middlemen crew bosses hired by farmers to provide laborers. When the cash gets into the chief's hands, trouble often ensues.

Paying workers without going through the labor boss would be one step in a series of changes that advocates say are long overdue. Those changes don't come easily. Many growers prefer to use the middlemen. And this year, two worker reform bills died in the Legislature without a vote.

Yet some industry leaders, citing the slavery cases brought in recent years against Florida contractors, say that perhaps more could be done.

``As a grower, it's extremely, extremely disappointing these cases are occurring,'' said Casey Pace, a spokeswoman for Florida Citrus Mutual, an association representing 11,000 state citrus growers. ``Unfortunately, just like in any business, those bad apples are out there.''

Pace was raised in a farming family and said the industry does a good job of educating growers about the laws that govern them.

Asked what could be done to curtail further abuses, she said: ``Education for those crew chiefs, along the same lines of what we do for growers. Educate them on labor laws, and have definite ramifications for people who don't do that.''

Yet enforcement is hindered by lack of resources.

The investigative contingent for the U.S. Department of Labor's wage and hour division has declined in recent years. The state Department of Business and Professional Regulation, like wage and hour, certifies farm labor contractors.

The Florida Department of Agriculture has tight purse strings, too.

``I know for a fact we do not have money to give them to enforce the laws we have on the books,'' said Rep. Greg Evers, R-Milton, a farmer by occupation.

``There hasn't been enough money hardly to keep the lights on. I have deep concerns for migrant labor.''

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