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March 10, 2004 - Senate bill would strengthen migrant workers' rights

Florida would strengthen protections for hundreds of thousands of migrant farm workers harvesting crops under bills that advanced through the Senate Wednesday.

A broad ranging bill (SB 2954) sponsored by Sen. J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales, would provide workers with better protections against pesticides, increase the penalties against contractors who violate farm labor laws, and revive a dormant commission to watch over the issue.

As many as 300,000 seasonal workers, many of them young Latino men, harvest crops in Florida. They serve the state's second largest industry - agriculture - which adds about $60 billion to the state's economy every year.

But Alexander said pressure from foreign competitors that aren't required to meet the same labor standards, such as Brazil, is driving down prices for agricultural products and may have worsened worker conditions in recent years.

"When times were better and growers were making more money, I think there was a lot less pressure for growers to cut corners," Alexander said. "A strong and viable ag industry relies on these workers."

Gov. Jeb Bush is supporting these types of migrant worker protections, which were developed after months of compromise among growers and workers. Some workers say its time for the two sides to work together.

"They're the farmers and we're the farm workers - we're not supposed to be at odds," said Margarita Romo, director of Farm Workers Self-Help.

Under the bill, employers would have to inform workers about agricultural pesticides in a language they understand.

In addition, the cost to register as a farm labor contractor would increase from $75 to $275, and penalties against contractors who violate labor laws would increase from $1,000 to $2,500.

Alexander said a new penalty structure would give regulators "more tools to work with" when they discover violations.

Luckner Millien, immigration coordinator for the Farmworker Association of Florida, who said he has been fighting for workers' rights in Tallahassee since 1984, said the bill marked a start.

"We're talking about good sense here. We're talking about justice," he said. "The conditions for farm workers, it's never been good. It's always bad."

Another bill (SB 1664) approved by the Senate Committee on Agriculture takes a narrower scope, but mirrors the pesticide protections. Senators explained that bill was designed to keep the issue moving, even if Alexander's bill ultimately fails

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