In December 2008, federal prosecutors from the Department of Justice wrapped up yet another farm labor slavery case in Florida, a case the Chief Assistant US Attorney called one of Southwest Florida's biggest and ugliest slavery cases ever, according to the Ft. Myers News-Press. When the defendants were indicted a year ago, US Attorney Doug Molloy called the case "slavery, plain and simple."
This latest case in which, according to court documents, workers were chained to poles, locked inside trucks, beaten, and robbed of their pay, was the seventh such case in just over a decade. Indeed, so shameful is Florida's record of farm labor abuse that a federal prosecutor involved in one of the slavery prosecutions told the New Yorker magazine, "What you get with agriculture is a pattern of exploitation that can be understood only as a system of human-rights abuses."
"It doesn't help when people deny that it exists," Molloy has said. "That's like throwing gasoline on the fire." While the FBI, the Department of Justice and local law enforcement have devoted many resources to eradication of slavery in Florida, one office has been absent from this effort.
When a reporter called Governor Charlie Crist's office for a comment on the most recent case, he declined to comment. Instead, he passed the call off to the spokesperson for Florida's Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, Terrence McElroy, who gave the impression that one slavery case per year is somehow no cause for alarm. "Of course, I say any instance is too many, and any legitimate grower certainly does not engage in that activity (slavery), but you're talking about maybe a case a year," McElroy said. His comments rightly set off a groundswell of outraged reactions by human rights, religious, consumer, and labor organizations and leaders across the country.
Among them is the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. Forced labor has been a central focus of the group's efforts since it was founded in 1993. The CIW was presented with the 2007 Anti-Slavery Award by Anti-Slavery International in London for its efforts to bring to justice some two dozen traffickers of over 1,000 workers in Florida in the last ten years.
Governor Crist, even a single case of slavery in the twenty-first century is too many. As the leader of the state and the single most powerful voice for the protection of every Floridian's fundamental human rights, you must repudiate the words of your Agriculture Secretary. The Governor should, rather than deny that slavery exists in Florida, join the many other public officials who have devoted their energy and talents to ending it, by meeting with those officials and the Coalition, and by pledging the power of his office to address the plague of modern-day slavery in Florida's fields.
To read more about all seven Florida slavery cases, click here.
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