Immokalee slavery case called 'beyond outrage'

In a federal case, five members of a family in Immokalee, Fla., pleaded guilty Sept. 2 to enslaving Mexican and Guatemalan farm workers for more than two years. Slavery in the United States has been banned for 130 years.

In a 17-count indictment, members of the Navarette family held captive more than a dozen men. The workers were forced to sleep in boxes, shacks and trucks on the family’s property. The family-owned company enslaved immigrant workers in North Carolina, South Carolina and Florida farm fields.

Workers were told they would earn a minimal wage but were driven into ever-increasing debt by the Navarette family who chained and beat them and threatened more abuse if the workers tried to leave. Each worker was charged for his meal and shower and they were told to urinate and defecate in outside corners near their sleeping areas. According to the indictment, they were never paid.

Last January several of the workers escaped from a ventilation hatch in a locked box truck in Immokalee and managed to find their way to the local authorities. Soon after their horror stories were revealed, federal agencies began to investigate the case including the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division.

The shocking news and guilty pleas has motivated farm worker groups to continue fighting for their rights. Plus it prompted lawmakers and news agencies to advocate for immigration reform that would include better wages and working conditions and laws that protect workers with or without papers.

Leaders of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), a farm worker advocacy group, helped crack the case and has played a prominent role in assisting federal civil rights officials prosecute at least five previous slavery cases since 1997, freeing more than 1,000 workers.

Gerardo Reyes, leader with CIW, said in a statement, “The facts that have been reported in this case are beyond outrage — workers being beaten, tied to posts, and chained and locked into trucks to prevent them from leaving their boss. How many more workers have to be held against their will before the food industry steps up to the plate and demands that this never — ever — occurs again?”

Florida’s leading lawmakers including Republicans Gov. Charlie Crist and former Gov. Jeb Bush have shown little interest or no support at all on this or previous worker-abuse cases. In fact Bush and his emissary publically criticized CIW for its work.

However, the Ft. Meyers-based The News-Press editorialized, in the wake of the Navarette scandal, for comprehensive immigration reform, “including a path to legal residency and citizenship for certain workers.”

The editorial called it a “necessary” measure “to bring this shameful plague to an end.”

The editorial went further to expose the agribusiness industry. So long as agriculture relies on undocumented labor, it said, “a culture of human exploitation and disrespect for the law will prevail, so we can eat slightly cheaper food and certain people can pocket extra profit. Disrespect for human beings is in the DNA of the current system. Respect demands that we legalize the foreign labor we clearly need to harvest our crops.”

Most agricultural workers in Florida work seasonally between December and May. The state grows nearly the entire crop of fresh tomatoes that are bought by restaurants and supermarkets throughout the country. CIW has worked with farm workers to demand and win an increase of one penny per pound of tomatoes to increase the workers wages and better their health and safety conditions.

Farm workers are excluded from the federal Fair Labor Standards Act, and in Florida do not have the right to organize and collectively bargain with their employers.

plozano@pww.org