'Fields of Despair'

Vallbona, Nuri
June 2004
Nieman Reports;Summer2004, Vol. 58 Issue 2, p117
Florida leads the U.S. in the number of contractors who have had licenses revoked because of labor violations against men and women they lured into working in farms. The wealthy growers who hired these laborers often went unpunished. Some of the worst abuses were in North Florida, where primarily African-American men were enticed into working the fields only to find themselves sinking slowly into a debt they could never repay. Some of their labor bosses advanced them money for meals and rent, while making drugs and alcohol plentiful. The men had to pay the boss back with 100 percent interest. When payday arrived, they received little or no pay for their 14 to 16 hour days. Fear of being beaten kept most in the camps. A few escaped by hiking for miles through the woods. They were afraid that if they walked by the highway, they would be found. Lucas Benitez, of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, and his colleagues helped free laborers who paid more than $1,000 to be smuggled from Mexico, then saw little or nothing for their sweat and labor plucking tomatoes and oranges, until their smuggling debt was retired. Stories regarding the plight of migrant workers prompted Florida Governor Jeb Bush and state lawmakers to pass legislation that increases penalties for farmworker abuse.


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