Florida Migrant Worker Organization Exposes Modern-Day Slavery

The exploitation of Florida migrant workers under “‘sweatshop’ conditions, including sub-poverty wages, no right to overtime pay, and no right to organize”sometimes descends into debt bondage and other forms of modern-day slavery. In fact, Assistant U.S. Attorney Douglas Molloy once described the tomato fields of Florida as “ground zero for modern-day slavery.”

In the midst of these oppressive conditions, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a grassroots organization in Southwest Florida, arose as a champion of migrant worker rights. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers investigates cases of worker exploitation, including modern-day slavery, and functions as an organizational whistleblower by reporting its findings to the government on behalf of the victims. According to the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, between 1997 and 2010, the following nine slavery prosecutions involved Florida migrant workers:

 

U.S. vs. Flores -- In 1997, Miguel Flores and Sebastian Gomez were sentenced to 15 years each in federal prison on slavery, extortion, and firearms charges, amongst others. Flores and Gomez had a workforce of over 400 men and women in Florida and South Carolina, harvesting vegetables and citrus. The workers, mostly indigenous Mexicans and Guatemalans, were forced to work 10-12 hour days, 6 days per week, for as little as $20 per week, under the watch of armed guards. Those who attempted escape were assaulted, pistol-whipped, and even shot. The case was brought to federal authorities after five years of investigation by escaped workers and CIW members.

 

U.S. vs. Cuello -- In 1999, Abel Cuello was sentenced to 33 months in federal prison on slavery charges. He had held more than 30 tomato pickers in two trailers in the isolated swampland west of Immokalee, keeping them under constant watch. Three workers escaped the camp, only to have their boss track them down a few weeks later. The employer ran one of them down with his car, stating that he owned them. The workers sought help from the CIW and the police, and the CIW worked with the DOJ on the ensuing investigation. Cuello worked for Manley Farms North Inc., a major Bonita Springs tomato supplier. Once out of prison, Cuello supplied labor to Ag-Mart Farms, a tomato company operating in Florida and North Carolina.

 

U.S. vs. Tecum -- In 2001, Jose Tecum was sentenced to 9 years in federal prison on slavery and kidnapping charges. He forced a young woman to work against her will both in the tomato fields around Immokalee, and in his home. The CIW assisted the DOJ with the prosecution, including victim and witness assistance. 

 

U.S. vs. Lee -- In 2001, Michael Lee was sentenced to 4 years in federal prison and 3 years supervised release on a slavery conspiracy charge. He pled guilty to using crack cocaine, threats, and violence to enslave his workers. Lee held his workers in forced labor, recruiting homeless U.S. citizens for his operation, creating a "company store" debt through loans for rent, food, cigarettes, and cocaine. He abducted and beat one of his workers to prevent him from leaving his employ. Lee harvested for orange growers in the Fort Pierce, FL area.

 

U.S. vs. Ramos -- In 2004, Ramiro and Juan Ramos were sentenced to 15 years each in federal prison on slavery and firearms charges, and the forfeiture of over $3 million in assets. The men, who had a workforce of over 700 farmworkers in the citrus groves of Florida, as well as the fields of North Carolina, threatened workers with death if they were to try to leave, and pistol-whipped and assaulted -- at gunpoint -- passenger van service drivers who gave rides to farmworkers leaving the area. The case was brought to trial by the DOJ after two years of investigation by the CIW. The Ramoses harvested for Consolidated Citrus and Lykes Brothers, among others.

 

U.S. vs. Ronald Evans -- In 2007, Florida employer Ron Evans was sentenced to 30 years in federal prison on drug conspiracy, financial re-structuring, and witness tampering charges, among others. Jequita Evans was also sentenced to 20 years, and Ron Evans Jr. to 10 years. Operating in Florida and North Carolina, Ron Evans recruited homeless U.S. citizens from shelters across the Southeast, including New Orleans, Tampa, and Miami, with promises of good jobs and housing. At Palatka, FL and Newton Grove, NC area labor camps, the Evans' deducted rent, food, crack cocaine and alcohol from workers' pay, holding them "perpetually indebted" in what the DOJ called "a form of servitude morally and legally reprehensible." The Palatka labor camp was surrounded by a chain link fence topped with barbed wire, with a No Trespassing sign. The CIW and a Miami-based homeless outreach organization (Touching Miami with Love) began the investigation and reported the case to federal authorities in 2003. In Florida, Ron Evans worked for grower Frank Johns. Johns was 2004 Chairman of the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association, the powerful lobbying arm of the Florida agricultural industry. As of 2007, he remained the Chairman of the FFVA's Budget and Finance Committee.

 

U.S. vs. Navarrete -- In December 2008, employers Cesar and Geovanni Navarrete were sentenced to 12 years each in federal prison on charges of conspiracy, holding workers in involuntary servitude, and peonage. They had employed dozens of tomato pickers in Florida and South Carolina. As stated in the DOJ press release on their sentencing, "[the employers] pleaded guilty to beating, threatening, restraining, and locking workers in trucks to force them to work as agricultural laborers... [They] were accused of paying the workers minimal wages and driving the workers into debt, while simultaneously threatening physical harm if the workers left their employment before their debts had been repaid to the Navarrete family." Workers first reported the abuse to Collier County police, and additional workers sought help from the CIW. The CIW collaborated with the DOJ and the police on the year-long investigation and prosecution.

 

U.S. vs. Bontemps -- In July 2010, Cabioch Bontemps, Carline Ceneus, and Willy Edouard were indicted by a federal grand jury on charges of conspiracy to commit forced labor. DOJ officials accuse the three of holding over 50 guestworkers from Haiti against their will in the beanfields of Alachua County, Florida. The indictment states that Bontemps raped one of the workers in his employ and threatened her if she were to report it. The employers held the workers' passports and visas, and forced them to work in fields recently sprayed with harsh pesticides, causing permanent scarring. The grower, Steven Davis, asked the judge during the court hearing to release Bontemps since he was key to the harvesting operation. "All these people [the workers] look up to him," Davis said. "All these people respect him. All these people worship him." As of September 2010, the prosecution is ongoing. The CIW trained local law enforcement and church groups shortly before the workers were rescued, and assisted in referring the case to the DOJ.

 

U.S. vs. Global Horizons -- In September 2010, staff of guestworker recruiting giant Global Horizons were charged with operating a forced labor ring active in 13 states, including Florida. Global Horizons President Mordechai Orian and six others are accused of holding hundreds of guestworkers from Thailand against their will, in what prosecutors call “the largest human trafficking case in U.S. history.” FBI Special Agent Tom Simon described the latest case as "a classic bait-and-switch what they were doing. They were telling the Thai workers one thing to lure them here. Then when they got here, their passports were taken away and they were held in forced servitude working in these farms." The prosecution is ongoing, with more details to emerge about the various states workers lived in and what crops they picked.

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