Posted on Fri, May. 14, 2004

Gov. Bush signs bill improving life for farmworkers

Standing in the town where farm labor advocates have exposed slavery and fought for worker protections, Gov. Jeb Bush on Friday signed a law meant to protect Florida farmworkers from unscrupulous bosses and dangerous pesticides.

Flanked by the relatives of a late farmworker and crusader for whom the bill is named, Bush signed a law advocates say will better protect the laborers whose sweat harvests crops in the state's second richest industry.

Many workers have been exploited by farm bosses who lured them with promises of prosperity, but delivered only long workdays, poverty pay, slum housing and loan shark advances.

A dozen Florida farm contractors, smugglers and henchmen have landed in prison in recent years for crimes against farmworkers, including slavery.

A Herald investigation last August, Fields of Despair, detailed many of those abuses and documented how Florida leads the nation in the number of scofflaw farm labor contractors -- the middlemen hired by growers to provide workers.

The series helped prompt the law, which increases criminal penalties and civil fines against those who exploit laborers and makes employing an unlicensed labor contractor a crime. The law forbids labor bosses from price gouging for vitals such as food, water and housing, a common practice is some work camps.

It also guarantees that critical information about pesticides be made available to workers who seek it, and prohibits retaliation against those who do.

''It is tough, tough work and it is important for us to make sure that work is provided the same protection as other workers . . . in urban areas across the state,'' Bush said from a state One-Stop Career Center in Immokalee, 110 miles from Miami, where farmworkers are provided job counseling and training.

``Farmworkers are as deserving of respect as any other workers in the state because of the importance of agriculture.''

The law also repeals what the governor called ''patently unfair and unconstitutional'' policy that gave families of Mexican and other foreign migrant workers half the worker compensation death benefits American and Canadian migrant workers received.

The law is named after Alfredo Bahena, who came to the U.S. as a migrant worker when he was a teenager, then later fought for pesticide and other protections. He was health and environmental safety coordinator for the Farmworkers Association of Florida until his death in an auto accident last month.

As Bush spoke Friday, Bahena's widow and other relatives stood by, some choked up as his fight for justice was remembered.

''He's inspired me to help other people. I want to be just like him,'' said his daughter Gabriela, 13, who volunteers at a farmworker advocacy center and hopes to become a lawyer.

Bush called Bahena a ``tireless advocate who lobbied for laws to provide better living and working conditions.''

The governor maintained the majority of Florida farm contractors operate within the law. ''This law targets those who don't,'' he said, and gives Florida the tools ``to put them out of business or behind bars.''

Agriculture is big business in Florida. The state's crops yield $7 billion a year, triggering a $60 billion economic impact, Gov. Bush said. Up to 300,000 labor in the seasonal work, with 3,600 licensed farm contractors.

Some worker advocates, while lauding the law, say more needs to be done. In particular, the advocates say, the growers who hire the middlemen contractors and reap the ultimate farm profits should be held more accountable for abuses of workers.

Rob Williams, Director of the Migrant Farmworker Justice Project in Tallahassee, is among those who believe growers should bear more accountability. At the same time, Williams sees the law as progress.

''I think it makes it better,'' Williams said. ``They make for a stronger law. And we shall see what the results are.''