Worker to Judge: “Bosses should not beat up the people who work with them”…

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In the midst of a growing uproar over Tallahassee’s controversial statements on slavery in Florida, Friday’s sentencing in the Navarrete case (pictured here, from the left, are farm bosses Geovanni and Cesar Navarrete) provided a horrifying reminder of the raw brutality of forced labor and the enduring shame of an agricultural industry seemingly addicted to exploitation…

Four Immokalee family members were sentenced yesterday for “enslaving and brutalizing migrant workers” (“Family sentenced for slavery,” Ft. Myers News-Press, 12/20/08). The case cast a terrifying new light on the recent debate over the significance of farm labor slavery in Florida, a debate that was sparked when the spokesperson for Florida’s Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services — speaking on behalf of Governor Charlie Crist — appeared to downplay the importance of seven major slavery prosecutions out of Florida’s fields in the past decade. The following is an extended excerpt from the News-Press report:

“One of the prosecutors, Susan French, called Cesar Navarrete the family’s ‘young patriarch.’ Geovanni Navarrete was ‘the enforcer, the beater.’

‘This defendant is the one who chained the worker’s feet to the pole,’ French said of Geovanni, ‘the one who beat them, slapped them … multiple victims, multiple acts of violence, multiple injuries to the victims.’

One of the victims, Mariano Lucas Diego, spoke of what he’d endured: beatings and nighttime imprisonment in a truck, where the family’s captives would have to urinate and defecate in the corners.

Diego described pounding on the truck until he and another victim made a hole through which they squeezed out, then found a ladder so the others could escape.

Diego spoke of several beatings.

‘Bosses should not beat up the people who work with them,’ he told Judge John E. Steele.

As Diego spoke, Geovanni Navarrete watched, shaking his head, a slight smile curling his upper lip.” Read the rest of the article here

In an important new twist, the News-Press article also identified the farms that employed the Navarrete crew:

“The Navarretes took their crews to work on farms owned by some of the state’s major tomato producers: Immokalee-based Six L’s and Pacific Tomato Growers in Palmetto. Both tomato growers are part of the Socially Accountable Farm Employers (SAFE) program, designed to prevent labor abuses.”

The News-Press ran a powerful editorial accompanying the report on the sentencing (“Little bit of slavery not acceptable,” 12/20/08) that connected the violent Navarrete operation to the recent comments by Terence McElroy of the Department of Agriculture. The editorial recalled McElroy’s words:

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.

Then responded with the following:

“To tolerate or to excuse even one instance of slavery in our community is to turn a blind eye to a scourge that Americans rejected nearly 150 years ago…”

The editorial went on to unequivocally condemn Governor Crist’s continuing silence on the human rights crisis in Florida’s fields, and concluded with a call to action:

“… Crist has avoided commenting on this issue so far, and he has missed an opportunity to show leadership.

He should accept the invitation to go to Immokalee, to check out the fields, to meet with workers and growers, and to publicly condemn slavery in our state.”

There is much, much more to come in this developing story. Stay tuned…

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