Main Menu

Museum shows atrocities farm workers face

Museum shows atrocities farm workers face

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Museum shows atrocities farm workers face
By J.A. Buchholz | April 23, 2010 {1165}

TAMPA — Wilson Perez wants what other Americans want from life — an opportunity to work in a safe environment and earn a fair wage.

Visitors tour the museum Feb. 28 at Grace United Methodist Church in Cape Coral. Photo by Brigitte Gynther. Photo #10-1425. Click on picture for larger photo or view in photo gallery with longer description.

That’s why he recently traveled throughout Florida to bring attention to the plight of migrant farm workers.

Perez visited Hyde Park United Methodist Church in Tampa April 11 with the Modern-Day Slavery Museum, a traveling museum depicting the harsh realities migrant farm workers face. The box truck housing the museum is similar to one in which workers were held captive; they were released from it only to pick tomatoes.

The museum is a joint effort between the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) and Interfaith Action of Southwest Florida, a network of people of faith and religious institutions that works in partnership with the coalition. The museum’s tour kicked off Feb. 28 at Grace United Methodist Church in Cape Coral and culminated April 18 with a march that took workers and advocates through Tampa, Plant City and the final stop in Lakeland.

Perez, a CIW member, said he wanted to educate people about the conditions under which the produce at their local grocery store is harvested.

“People don’t know,” he said. “It’s very difficult work in bad conditions.”

Southwest Florida is key in terms of agricultural production, and Immokalee is the state’s largest farm worker community. The majority of CIW’s 4,000 members work for large agricultural corporations in the tomato and citrus harvests, traveling along the East Coast following the harvest in season. Many also move out of agriculture and into other low wage industries, including the construction, nursery and tourist industries.

As late as 2008 there were cases of farm workers locked in box trucks and released only to work. Many workers live in cramped quarters — what many would consider dire conditions —and earn pennies per 32-pound bucket of tomatoes picked. In 1978 workers earned just 40 cents per bucket. Today, the rate is 72 cents.

Wilson Perez hoists a typical 32-pound bucket of tomatoes in front of a museum display. Perez works 10-12 hours a day picking tomatoes, earning 72 cents per bucket. Photo by J.A. Buchholz. Photo #10-1426. Click on picture for larger photo or view in photo gallery with longer description.

Farm workers reached an agreement in June 2008 with Burger King Corporation to pay more for tomatoes picked by workers in Florida. The second largest fast-food chain in the United States agreed to pay an extra 1.5 cents per pound. A penny of the increase goes toward wages; a half cent funds incremental payroll taxes and administrative costs to encourage grower participation in the pact.

While that change marks progress, there is more work to be done. The problem today, Perez says, lies within large grocery store chains, and like the pressure leveraged against fast-food chains, CIW must now turn that attention to other large purchasers of produce picked in undesirable conditions. He said the issue is not solely money, but also implementing a code of conduct to be enforced in the fields and the use of harmful pesticides on the produce that must be handpicked by workers.

Decades of abuse

Farm worker conditions are not a new concern. The museum aired a television segment by the late CBS newsman Ed Bradley Jr. that exposes the tactics one man used to recruit Florida workers to toil in the fields.

Eddie Thomas, an area resident who visited the museum at the Hyde Park church, said he knew all about the recruiter because he used to give him $5 for every touchdown he made when he was a boy playing high school football in Moore Haven.

That was only one side of the man many workers feared. He was also known for persuading men who were in the throws of alcohol and drug addiction to work on the farms, paying them little or no money and giving them their drug of choice to ensure the produce would be picked.

Sean Sellers, a Kellogg Food and Society Fellow, takes visitors through the museum. The box truck housing the museum is similar to one in which workers were held captive; they were released from it only to pick tomatoes. Photo by J.A. Buchholz. Photo #10-1427. Click on picture for larger photo or view in photo gallery with longer description.

Thomas said he never fell victim to the scam, but saw it happen to countless others. He found the exhibit interesting, but said it wasn’t anything new to him.

“A lot of people don’t know this type of thing is happening, but it’s personal for me,” Thomas said. “I grew up around all this. It’s part of my family history. My father retired from the United States Sugar Corporation in Clewistown, ‘the sweetest town in America.’ ”

For many, there is nothing sweet about what’s taking place in many migrant camps, where some workers are illiterate and don’t know another life can exist for them.

That’s what Melvin Shepard found when he worked in a watermelon camp in Wimauma years ago. The Tampa resident said he was surprised to see the exhibit.

“The people there get stuck in a certain pattern,” he said. “The people who live in the camps are very much like slaves. Some can’t read or write. I would read letters they would receive and write letters for them. The people in these camps just don’t know they can leave. Sometimes they are more afraid of the unknown, living in a real city, trying to find work, than the abuse they face in the camps.”

Shepard became an asset for the camp owner and traveled to camps in the Carolinas for six months because he could interact with the workers so well. He eventually tired of the long days “working sunup to sundown” and simply walked away from it all.

Perez could leave, but he says that wouldn’t solve anything for the workers who will come behind him. He says he is fighting for change for himself and countless, voiceless others.

Abuses reach beyond farm

Jim Madden saw the exhibit at St. Petersburg College and again after attending worship services at the Hyde Park church.

Madden, who is with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, said the issue with the farm workers should be considered a human trafficking crime. He said many times undocumented people come to the United States in search of a better life to earn money to send to family members in their home country, only to be lured into an unending cycle of abuse.

Madden says people fall prey to crew leaders who are searching out the lost to become the next worker on produce farms. He says they can also be found in the hotel industry, massage parlors, assisted living facilities and domestic servitude. The opportunity for the least of society to be abused is vast, he said.

“People don’t expect this to happen in their community,” Madden said. “This happens all the time. People have no idea.”

But the word is getting out. “People who are non-governmental workers spread the word about where this type of thing is taking place,” he said. “People would be amazed that this type of thing is happening every day in their own backyards.”

Finding solutions

Hyde Park United Methodist Church member Lee Hill said he had an inkling unscrupulous business practices had been taking place on the farms for years. After walking through the exhibit, he said he felt bad about what was taking place, but was at a loss for a solution.

Hyde Park church member Kelly Varsames gives her e-mail address to Coalition of Immokalee Workers and Interfaith Action of Southwest Florida after viewing the museum. “I like to be able to help organizations by signing online petitions,” she said. Photo by J.A. Buchholz. Photo #10-1428. Click on picture for larger photo or view in photo gallery with longer description.

The solution is simple, according to Brigitte Gynther, who traveled with the exhibit as part of her role with Interfaith Action of Southwest Florida. She said the exhibit is about raising awareness and asking people to stand with farm workers. It’s also about putting pressure on grocery store chains purchasing produce from farms that do not support fair wages or safe working conditions.

“We are on a campaign for fair food,” Gynther said. “We want to raise awareness. We have been on this tour for five weeks, and every day the response has been people don’t know this is happening or just don’t think about it. In this day and age it’s time to do something about it.” 

Gynther said people of faith should work with CIW and Interfaith Action of Southwest Florida to advocate on behalf of farm workers. She said the museum has been well received by United Methodists and other faith groups, such as the Catholic and Presbyterian churches it has visited. It was also taken to area colleges and universities.

Kelly Varsames is refusing to turn a blind eye to the injustices taking place. The Hyde Park member toured the exhibit and shared her e-mail address with organizers so she can receive additional information about the cause.

“This exhibit is fantastic,” Varsames said. “I knew a little bit about what was going on, but not to this degree. I want to support the workers and make a difference.”  

CIW is a community-based organization of mainly Latino, Mayan Indian and Haitian immigrants working in low-wage jobs throughout the state. The goal is to build a community on the basis of reflection and analysis, constant attention to coalition building across ethnic divisions, and an ongoing investment in leadership development to help its members continually develop their skills in community education and organization.

More information is available at

Cases profiled in the museum

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, among others. Flores and Gomez had a workforce of more than 400 men and women in Florida and South Carolina harvesting vegetables and citrus. The workers, mostly indigenous Mexicans and Guatemalans worked 10- to 12-hour days, six days a week, for as little as $20 per week, under the watch of armed guards. Those who attempted escape were assaulted, pistol-whipped and shot. Escaped workers and CIW members brought the case to federal authorities after five years of investigation.

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 CIW and police, and CIW worked with the Department of Justice 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.

Workers harvest tomatoes at a farm in Immokalee, where low wages and poor conditions prompted farm worker advocates to lobby fast-food giant Burger King Corp. An agreement in 2008 between Burger King and farm workers increased wages and protection to workers subjected to abuse from growers. A UMNS file photo by Scott Robertson. Photo #08-0893. Originally accompanied e-Review Florida UMNS #0867, 06/12/08. Click on picture for larger photo or view in photo gallery with longer description.

U.S. vs. Lee — In 2001 Michael Lee was sentenced to four years in federal prison and three years’ supervised release on a slavery conspiracy charge. He pled guilty to using crack cocaine, threats and violence to enslave workers. Lee held 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 employment. Lee harvested for orange growers in the Fort Pierce 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 more than $3 million in assets. The men, who had a workforce of more than 700 farm workers in the citrus groves of Florida and fields of North Carolina, threatened workers with death if they tried to leave and pistol-whipped and assaulted at gunpoint passenger van service drivers who gave rides to farm workers leaving the area. The case was brought to trial by the Department of Justice after two years of investigation by 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 restructuring 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 jobs and housing. At Palatka and Newton Grove, North Carolina area labor camps, the Evans' deducted rent, food, crack cocaine and alcohol from workers’ pay, holding them “perpetually indebted” in what the Department of Justice called “a form of servitude morally and legally reprehensible.” A chain link fence topped with barbed wire and a ‘No Trespassing’ sign surrounded the Palatka labor camp. CIW and a Miami-based homeless outreach organization 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 lobbying arm of the state agricultural industry. As of 2007, he remained chairman of the organization’s budget and finance committee. Ron Evans is serving 30 years in jail today for holding workers in what federal prosecutors called “a form of servitude morally and legally reprehensible.”

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. The Department of Justice press release on the farm bosses’ conviction stated: “(the employers) pled 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 Navarretes.”

A 12/19/07 article in The Independent newspaper (UK) describes the conditions faced by the workers in more detail: “Florida fruit-pickers, held captive and brutalised by their employer for more than a year, finally broke free of their bonds by punching their way through the ventilator hatch of the van in which they were imprisoned. Once outside, they dashed for freedom. When they found sanctuary one recent Sunday morning, all bore the marks of heavy beatings to the head and body. One of the pickers had a nasty, untreated knife wound on his arm. Police would learn later that another man had his hands chained behind his back every night to prevent him escaping, leaving his wrists swollen. The migrants were not only forced to work in sub-human conditions, but mistreated and forced into debt. They were locked up at night and had to pay for sub-standard food. If they took a shower with a garden hose or bucket, it cost them $5.”

Workers first reported the abuse to Collier County police, and additional workers sought help from CIW, which collaborated with the Department of Justice and the police on the yearlong investigation and prosecution.

Related stories

Leaders get education on farm worker life, urban agriculture

Human trafficking becomes ecumenical target

Tomato picker shares personal story at forum

Florida Conference ramps up efforts to help farm workers

Young adults address slavery, human trafficking 

United Methodists declare victory for farm workers  

Agreement with McDonald’s advances workers’ rights

Commentary: The fields of Florida

CIW uncovers slavery ring in Lake Placid

Taco Bell boycott, worker issues hit home in Florida

A portion of this article appeared in a June 11, 2008, United Methodist News Service Report by Kathy L. Gilbert.

News media contact: Tita Parham, 800-282-8011,, Orlando
*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**Buchholz is a freelance writer based in Seffner, Fla.