May 19, 2004


Protecting farmworkers
Law is a modest step forward


They are more than 300,000 strong in Florida, but migrant farmworkers are easy to overlook

politically. The work they perform is vital to the state's multibillion-dollar agriculture industry,

but many of them are in the country illegally and therefore trapped in an underground economy

that is often ripe for abuse.


Though new legislation designed to protect farm laborers isn't revolutionary, Gov. Jeb Bush

deserves credit for signing these reforms into law. The law increases fines against exploitative

labor contractors; requires that migrant workers be informed about agricultural pesticides; and

prohibits contractors from price-gouging workers for necessities such as food, water and housing.


Though the lack of adequate manpower for enforcement is an ongoing problem, the harsher

fines could act as a deterrent in the competitive world of labor contracting, where there is

"tremendous pressure to cheat," said Rob Williams, director of the

Migrant Farmworker Justice Project in Tallahassee.


Of course, placing more responsibility at the feet of growers for the treatment of migrant

workers is the key to real reform - an approach that has never been greeted with much

political enthusiasm at the state Capitol.


There is, however, some hope at the national level. In Congress, action is pending on the

Agricultural Job Opportunity Benefits and Security Act, which would offer farmworkers the

chance to earn legal status. That would put them in a better position to exercise their legal rights.


In the meantime, let's hope the state's reforms advance the cause of decent treatment

for Florida's migrant workers.