Shortly after John F. Kennedy assumed the presidency, author Michael Harrington wrote a powerful book depicting the plight of migrant workers in America and Edward R. Murrow filmed the famous “harvest of Shame” episode on TV. It inspired the Kennedy administration to take action. Fast forward forty five years and an English newspaper is printing stories on its front page about the plight of America’s migrant workers, Leonard Dolye, reporting from Florida, describes fruit pickers held captive and subjected to brutal work conditions. three of them recently broke free after a year of being terrorized by their employer and reported to police conditions on the fruit plantation. The workers were locked up at night and if they took a shower using a hose, $5 was deducted from their wages. “The story of slavery and abuse in the fruit fields of sub-tropical Florida threatens to lift the lid on some appalling human rights abuses in America today.”
In words that could have been written by Michael Harrington years ago, Doyle points out the mainly Hispanic work force gets paid 45 cents for every 32 pound bucket of tomatoes collected. A worker has to pick nearly two-and-a-half tons of tomatoes to even earn the minimum wage. The police investigation reveals workers are forced into debt and don’t even get the luxury of making money to send home. Detectives found 11 men held captive in a bungalow. The entire operation was run by a family named, Navarette. Despite the hard work of the men they were deeply in debt due to punitive charges imposed by the employer who lived in abandoned vans which also were the only place for toilet activities. The men were forced to pay rent of $20 a week to live in a locked furniture van and to urinate and defecate in a corner. They paid $50 a week for meals which usually consisted of rice with a few bits of meat thrown in.
Florida migrant workers have no protection under the law to unionize. The Bush/Cheney administration is hostile to any union activities and has stacked the National Labor Relations Commission with pro-employer appointees who make difficult any attempt at forming a union to protect the rights of workers. Several large franchises such as Burger King and McDonalds have been urged to insist on better pay for farm workers. McDonalds recently signed an agreement whereby farm workers would get an extra penny a pound for picking tomatoes.
The so-called liberals running for the Democratic Party nomination for president are too busy worrying about early childhood writings of their opponents to take a stand for migrant workers– after all, they don’t vote in the primaries. Not a single one has yet gone to Florida to stand behind these workers or to make a statement in support of the poor people of this nation. John Edwards is the only candidate who even hints there are two Americas, one of the affluent and one of the poor. The shame of America is that such stories appear on the front page of an important English newspaper– will they ever appear on the front pages of American newspapers?
Oh, don’t expect the Navarette family to be punished other than paying a few dollars in fines. Now, if they stole fruit from a store, it would be jail time.