CIW uncovers slavery ring in Lake Placid (July 1, 2004)



e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service
      
 

CIW uncovers slavery ring in Lake Placid

July 1, 2004    News media contact:  Michael Wacht*    
407-897-1140   
mwacht@flumc.org     Orlando  {0101}

NOTE:  This is a sidebar to e-Review Florida UMNS article  #0100 at http://www.flumc2.org/FCNN/articles/000005/000516.htm.

An e-Review Feature
By J.A. Buchholz**

IMMOKALEE — Agricultural farm worker Romeo Ramirez (left) talks to Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) staff member Julia Perkins at the CIW office here. Ramirez, a native of Guatemala, went undercover in a Lake Placid citrus farm to uncover human rights violations, earning him the 2003 Robert F. Kennedy Humanitarian Award. Photo by J.A. Buchholz, Photo #04-0036.

IMMOKALEE — Romeo Ramirez didn't know slavery still existed in the United States until he infiltrated a citrus worker camp in Lake Placid where people were systematically abused by the owner.

Ramirez, a tomato picker and volunteer with Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), earned the 2003 Robert F. Kennedy Humanitarian Award for his undercover work posing as a citrus worker for one week.

Ramirez, a native of Guatemala, has been an agriculture farm worker since he was 15. He was the first person in the history of CIW to work undercover in a farm crew. The leaders of the operation were found guilty of conspiracy to hold workers against their will and sentenced to prison in 2001.

Ramirez didn't spend much time at the camp, but it was dangerous enough that both the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) declined to go undercover to investigate human rights violations, Ramirez said.

While undercover Ramirez discovered the 700 workers at the Lake Placid site were forced to work every day, were not allowed to communicate with people outside the camp and worked under supervisors who were often armed. They were also forced to cash their paychecks and shop for items at a store owned by the same owner of the citrus farm.

"They weren't allowed to look for work anywhere else," Ramirez said. "They were only allowed to go where the boss would take them. They were living under a dictatorship."

Ramirez said being at the camp was a "difficult situation." He said he didn't set out to win glory for himself, but freedom for the workers.

"I heard something was wrong at the camp, and I just wanted justice," he said. "What I found was extreme human rights abuse. I wanted to bring that to light."

Delegates to the 2004 General Conference in Pittsburgh April 26-May 7 approved a boycott of Taco Bell that was first requested by CIW in March 2001.

The boycott is in protest of Taco Bell's unwillingness to address the issue of alleged worker exploitation by its tomato suppliers. Other religious endorsers include the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), the United Church of Christ, the American Friends Service Committee and the National Council of Churches.

Tomato pickers like Ramirez earn less than .50 cents per 32-pound bucket gathered for use in Taco Bell products, and the average wage has not changed in more than 20 years, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

Many of the workers in the migrant camps in Immokalee and surrounding areas attend United Methodist churches and receive assistance to help with their living conditions.

Established in 1984, the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award honors individuals who are, often at great personal risk, engaged in strategic and nonviolent efforts to overcome serious human rights violations through the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Human Rights.

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This article relates to the 2004 General Conference and Church and Society.

*Wacht is director of Florida United Methodist Communications and managing editor
of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**Buchholz is a staff writer for e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.




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