Modern day slavery: the plight of seasonal farmworkers in Florida

Published: April 20th, 2009

Category: News

In September 2008, a modern day slavery prosecution in Florida resulted in the guilty pleas of six people to harboring undocumented immigrants for private financial gain and related felonies. Two of those individuals also pled guilty to beating, threatening, restraining, and locking people in trucks to force them to perform agricultural labor.

Despite the adoption of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights sixty years ago, farmworkers in the United States must still fight for the rights to a just wage, to work free of forced labor, and to organize.

Agricultural labor has been described as one of the most dangerous jobs in America, and farmworkers suffer more pesticide poisonings than any other sector of American labor. Federal law excludes farmworkers from many of the protections provided to other laborers, and farmworkers in Florida face deplorable conditions.

In November 2008, University of Florida law students gathered to learn more about the issues faced by farmworkers in Florida. The Public Service Law Fellows (Fellows), funded by The Florida Bar Foundation, organized the event with the co-sponsorship of APIL, CaribLaw, HLLSA, and SALSA. The event featured a discussion with Bert Perry, the Florida Director of the National Farm Worker Ministry, and Jose Antonio Tovar, a University of Florida graduate student who works with the Farmworker Association. Perry and Tovar described the legal, economic, and social conditions for agricultural workers in Florida including environmental hazards, living conditions, and hours and intensity of the work.

In 1960 the television documentary Harvest of Shame exposed many Americans to the harsh realities of agricultural labor in the United States. On the afternoon before the panel discussion, the Fellows screened the documentary in the courtyard of the law school, but the demographics of Florida agricultural labor have changed since 1960. Today farmworkers in Florida are increasingly immigrants, and their immigration status affects the conditions under which they must labor. The panelists spoke about the interplay between immigration status and labor conditions, domestic violence, and sexual harassment.

Organizing events like the panel discussion on farmworkers in Florida is one of the tasks of the Fellows. In the spring 2009 semester, the Fellows organized a continuing legal education seminar on defending residential foreclosures for attorneys and students. Organizing these events allows the Fellows to support the discussion of public interest work at the law school and to encourage other law students to become passionate and committed to using their education to advance public interests. Additionally, the Fellows work throughout their two semester term at local not-for-profit or governmental legal organizations. These placements allow Fellows to put the skills developed in the classroom into practical application while serving clients with limited access to legal resources.

During this past year Caroline McCrae worked for Three Rivers Legal Services and the Office of the Public Defender as part of her Public Service Law Fellowship, which is funded by The Florida Bar Foundation and supervised by the Center for Governmental Responsibility and the Center for Career Services.