Florida Employers Guilty of Slavery
Slavery has a modern form: it’s called debt bondage, and you can find it in the Florida citrus industry. For the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, the June 26 federal criminal conviction of three Florida-based employers for conspiracy to hold workers in involuntary servitude is a major victory.
Other charges against Ramiro, Juan, and José Ramos included interference with interstate commerce through extortion and the use of a firearm during a crime of violence.
These employers ran extensive, multi-state harvesting operations, employing 600-700 workers in citrus alone. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), a worker-run community organization of over 2,000 members based in Florida, uncovered and investigated the slavery operation.
The defendants recruited workers in Arizona and transported them to central Florida. Cost of the trip was high.
According to workers, their employers held them in debt in labor camps in Lake Placid, Florida, telling them they owed $1,000 each for their transportation. The Ramoses then deducted from weekly pay for the debt, food, rent for substandard labor camp housing, and even work equipment such as picksacks and gloves.
Laura Germino, a representative of the CIW, said, “Even if people agreed to pay off the dubious debt for the ride, workers should be able to pay it off anywhere they want, anywhere they can get a job.” Workers sometimes ended with as little as $70 per week, and had no control over “records” of payment and credit.
The debt for transportation acts as the initial mechanism to hold workers against their will. In both this and past slavery cases in Florida, employers used psychological coercion and threats, informants armed with guns and cell phones watching for workers trying to escape, and the cutting off of access to the outside world.
“The employers basically try to control every aspect of the workers’ lives,” said Germino. In the most recent case, the employers controlled the substandard housing where workers lived, and family members of the Ramoses even owned the stores where workers were taken to shop. Nor was physical violence out of bounds.
In May 2000 the employers attacked van drivers who had stopped in Lake Placid to pick up workers travelling north. Such van services typically provide farmworkers with much needed mobility to follow jobs and harvests. The van drivers testified in court that six or more armed gunmen pulled up in two pickup trucks, accused the drivers of “taking their people,” held the drivers and passengers at gunpoint, threatened to kill them, beat some of them, smashed the van windows, and viciously pistol-whipped the van service owner, leaving him unconscious and permanently disfigured.
By attacking the van service, employers effectively shut down the workers’ only escape route.
Key to the conviction were CIW members. The CIW has uncovered and investigated three major slavery operations in the past five years, and has collaborated with the Department of Justice as consultants on two others.
Initial leads in uncovering the Ramos case came from workers the CIW helped to escape, as well as reports from the attacked van drivers.
“Immigrant workers live in and have extensive knowledge of a world that is foreign to law enforcement agencies. Workers’ own investigative capacity was central to this conviction,” Germino said.
It took over a year of pressure by the CIW before the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division started prosecuting the case. CIW’s community participation in slavery investigations has been cited across the nation as a model for anti-slavery work.
The three employers are facing prison sentences of 17 to 25 years and the possible seizure of $3 million in assets.
Juice companies, fast food corporations, and other companies that use agricultural industry products have been silent about modern-day slavery in the fields. There has been no statement from agribusiness companies about this case or the five other Florida-based slavery cases.
While it’s difficult to track which taco has tomatoes picked under conditions of debt bondage, or which glass of juice uses oranges picked by workers being held in slavery, fast-food and other corporations derive increased profits from the agricultural industry’s cheap labor and antiquated labor relations.
Germino says, “The solution is attacking the root causes and modernizing agricultural labor relations so workers have more power.”
With its national campaign to get Taco Bell to raise wages for tomato pickers, CIW has called on the fast-food industry to take responsibility for sweatshop conditions in the fields. Farmworkers who aren’t being held in slavery-most of the workforce-are still working for sub-poverty wages without the protections other workers enjoy.
“The elimination of slavery will come with overall victories in our movement to modernize labor relations and from our struggle for workers to be treated as partners in the industry,” said Germino.
She notes that in areas where CIW members are educating and organizing against slavery, no further operations have surfaced. In addition, she said, many escaped workers have become active members of the CIW and “are very active in fighting not only for their rights, but for the rights of others as well.”
For Spanish version of this article, click here.