October 26, 2007
When I was in Miami recently I joined Bill Tejeda and Lydia Vilar-Reynolds from our Regulation team for a visit to some of south Florida’s agriculture communities. Our Department is charged with implementing portions of the farm labor regulation program, and we have inspectors around the state who are sent into the field to ensure compliance with farm labor statutes.
Florida law requires that any person who recruits, transports into or within the state, supplies or hires farm workers to work under the direction of a third person to be registered with the state. These farm labor contractors have strict disclosure requirements and are held to high standards for ensuring the safety of the individuals whom they hire. Among other responsibilities, they have to provide safe transportation, ensure safe housing and provide field sanitation.
When we visited, the picking season was not yet at its height, but soon the workers will be migrating down from South Carolina or Georgia where they have already been engaged in picking the fall harvest. In Homestead, where we were, the workers were beginning to pick okra, and we saw evidence of new plantings of tomatoes and saw fields of other tropical fruits.
Lydia drove us around the various fields, showing us what the workers face when they arrive in Florida. Most of the contractors with whom Lydia works have come into compliance and are ensuring that their workers have all of the resources they need. They have port-a-potties for bathroom breaks and fresh water available to the workers, and the workers with whom Lydia spoke were aware of the protections that are afforded to them.
But she also showed us some of the areas in which more needs to be done: run down buses, workers without adequate covering to protect their arms, families living out of cars… Many of these immigrants come from Mexico or Guatemala, and a great percentage of them are Central American Indians. She explained that because of language barriers, many of the laborers do not understand the protections in state law, and often they depend on a crew leader or boss for translation. We believe that some labor contractors require workers to pay a significant portion of their salaries for the cost of transportation, food and shelter. For some, this sort of financial relationship means that the worker is stuck in poverty, with little ability to use the proceeds of their labor to build a better life.
Our team works in partnership with the Immigration and Naturalization Service to ensure that workers are properly documented, and they work with other state and local agencies to enforce the protections afforded to these workers. The good contractors care very passionately about protecting their workers, too, but it will take a combined, concerted effort to enforce government protections.
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