Posted on Thu, Nov. 27, 2003story:PUB_DESC
AGRICULTURE
State finds violations of laws on farm labor
Two instances of minors working in the fields are discovered as state agents, in a sweep of South Miami-Dade farms, find labor violations.

edevalle@herald.com
 

State inspectors found 94 violations of farm labor and safety laws during a two-day sweep of the South Miami-Dade area -- including two instances of child labor, authorities said Wednesday.

Seven investigators from the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation visited 42 farms in Homestead and Florida City on Nov. 18 and 19 -- in the middle of the growing season for beans, squash, cucumbers and tomatoes.

Agents issued citations to 20 businesses and individuals, including six to repeat offenders, said Meg Shannon, a spokeswoman for the agency.

The most serious violation was one citation for two minors, ages 14 and 16, working at one site, she said.

The most common violations, she said, were these:

 Transportation, such as overloaded or unsafe vehicles that lacked tires, seats or doors.

 Field sanitation -- no hand-washing facilities; no water or cups; no toilet facilities within a quarter-mile of workers; sewage not being properly disposed of.

 The failure of crew chiefs to be properly registered.

The state can assess fines of up to $2,500 for child labor violations and $1,000 for other farm labor violations. In extreme cases, the department has the power to revoke or refuse to renew a license.

Earlier this year, a Herald investigation found that Florida leads the nation in the number of farm labor contractors barred from operating for violating the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act, with 43 percent of the total.

SECOND SWEEP

Last week's sweep was the second in Miami-Dade County since September, when 18 farms were inspected, Shannon said. Two citations were written at that time, she added, and one rule violator was referred to the U.S. Department of Labor. But the growing season hadn't started and only 75 to 100 workers were seen on that day, compared with 1,300 last week, she said.

Other sweeps have taken place in Collier, Gadsden, Flagler, Hamilton, Hardee, Palm Beach, Polk, Putnam and St. Johns counties.

The sweeps are ''a good thing,'' said Katie Edwards, a spokeswoman for the Dade County Farm Bureau.

''The Farm Bureau stands firm in its commitment to fair wages and safe working conditions for farmworkers, and we oppose employment practices that violate laws and regulations governing farm labor,'' she said. ``It's only fair for those farms that do take all of the necessary precautions and abide by the rules.''

Although she did not know details of the sweeps, Maria Garza -- a longtime farmworker advocate and director of the South Dade Skills Center -- said that, from the brief description given by the state, the violations are serious.

''Even if we have one kid working on a school day, that's one kid too many,'' said Garza.

NOT A HAVEN

Although 94 violations seem high, that does not mean South Florida is a haven for rogue labor contractors, Garza said.

''We all see Dade County as pretty much heaven in comparison to other agricultural areas throughout the state and the nation,'' she said. ``Most of the farmers in Dade County have a friendly relationship with the farmworker population, not an adversary relationship as they have in Immokalee and other areas.''


Herald staff writer Ronnie Greene contributed to this report