May 19, 2004
Law is a modest step forward
A TALLAHASSEE DEMOCRAT EDITORIAL
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.