The CIW mourns those farmworkers killed in the May 14 bus crash, calls for greater protections for all farmworkers

Members of the Immokalee community prepare for a vigil on Sunday, May 19,  in honor of the eight workers killed in last week’s tragic accident near Ocala. The vigil was organized through a community-wide collaboration among Unidos Immokalee, Mision Peniel, and the CIW.

Lucas Benitez, CIW: “It hurts to think about how their families have yet to learn about this, that their loved ones cannot come home to their country and hug their children, their spouses, their parents.”

At 6:30 in the morning of Tuesday, May 14, an oncoming pick-up truck veered out of its lane on a two-lane stretch of State Road 40 near the central Florida town of Ocala and sideswiped a bus full of farmworkers heading to the fields to harvest watermelons. The collision caused the bus to swerve off the narrow road and lose control, careening first into a tree before flipping and rolling to a stop in a nearby field.  The driver of the pick-up truck survived the accident and was arrested, charged with driving under the influence of alcohol and eight counts of manslaughter.  

Eight farmworkers were killed, and over 40 more were injured in this tragic accident. 

Our hearts go out to the workers and their families in this devastating time. The watermelon industry is especially close to the heart of the Immokalee community, and of the CIW in particular.  Many of the CIW staff and longtime members worked in the industry for decades, many have driven on State Road 40 and worked the fields around Ocala and Gainesville where the accident occurred for years.  The news of the workers’ death hit close to home. 

We mourn the loss of those killed:

Manuel Pérez Ríos, 46;

Evarado Ventura Hernández, 30;

Cristian Salazar Villeda, 24;

Alfredo Tovar Sánchez, 20;

Isaías Miranda Pascal, 21;

José Heriberto Fraga Acosta, 27;

As well as two other farmworkers who have yet to be publicly identified.

According to the most recent federal data, vehicle collisions were among the leading cause of job-related deaths for farmworkers involved in harvesting. 

That’s why, when we launched the Fair Food Program in the Florida tomato industry in 2010, we made sure that transportation safety provisions are strictly enforced, including empowering workers to complain if they feel the driver might be driving unsafely or had other reasons to fear that they were not adequately protected.  While those provisions may not have prevented last week’s accident, they are saving lives on Fair Food Program farms.

By contrast, the watermelon industry remains outside of the Fair Food Program’s protections. 

In addition to last week’s horrific accident involving watermelon harvesters, a case of modern-day slavery emerged involving watermelon workers just two years ago.  Hundreds of workers and their consumer allies marched 50 miles from Pahokee, where the workers in that case were housed, to Palm Beach last year to demand an end to forced labor and other abuses in the agricultural industry.

Accidents like these remind us that it is time for retailers who buy melons to demand that their suppliers bring their operations into the 21st century of basic safety compliance, and to ensure farmworkers’ safety in the fields and while being transported. 

Below you can find excerpts from news coverage of the crash. Please join us not only in mourning, but in the broader call to empower farmworkers through the expansion of the Fair Food Program so that they can live and work safely and with dignity.


Workers call for watermelon farmer protections following deadly bus crash

Watermelon farms aren’t in CIW’s fair food program – which means they do not have program protection for things like safe transportation.

MMOKALEE, Fla. — Silvia Perez rode a bus very similar to the one involved in Tuesday’s deadly crash when she worked in tomato fields.

Now at the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, she helps others working in the field.

“Vemos que nosotros tenemos mucho trabajo todavía por por delante para que esas industrias pequeñas van a ser parte del programa, pero por ahorita no están fuera del programa, están desprotegidos”// “We see that we still have a lot of work ahead of us so that these small industries are going to be part of the program, but for now they are outside the program. They are unprotected,” Perez tells FOX 4.

By smaller industries, she means watermelon farms.

That’s where the people on the bus in Marion County worked.

But watermelon farms aren’t in CIW’s fair food program, which means they do not have the protection for things like safe transportation.

“Esas compañías tienen esa responsabilidad de tener el transporte seguro” // “Companies have that responsibility to have safe transportation,” she tells FOX 4.

The coalition says they are providing support to everyone impacted by the crash, and tell FOX 4 they want watermelon farms to have safer conditions….


6 bus crash victims identified; Immokalee community mourns loss

Eight Mexican migrant farmworkers’ lives were cut short in an instant during a bus crash in Central Florida, and now we know who at least six of them were.

The six victims that have been identified in the Tuesday crash are Evardo Ventura Hernandez, Cristian Salazar Villeda, Alfredo Tovar Sanchez, Isaias Miranda Pascal, Jose Heriberto Fraga Acosta and Manuel Perez Rios.

“We have had the reaction of one of the widows’ wives now, who cannot come to terms with the fact that her husband is no longer here because he came to seek a better life for her and her children,” said Lucas Benitez, co-founder of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers.

Around 40 other workers are now in the hospital.

“Most, if not maybe 100% of the workers on that bus are from Mexico,” said Benitez.

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers said all 53 workers were on temporary H-2A visas and staying in Gainesville.

“They only come for a season of between six months and eight months maximum,” said Benitez.

This brings up another sad reality for those affected by the bus crash.

“The workers who are still in the hospital or those who are recovering at home already are alone,” said Benitez. “They do not have the support of any family member, no one close to them…”


Ocala crash causes the death of eight farmworkers, injures 45

Host: If you’re planning to enjoy a watermelon on this hot weekend, think for a moment about the cost that goes into it — specifically, the bus crash near Ocala this week that caused the death of eight farmworkers and injured 45 more. To get the full picture, Ruth Beltran, host of the Ruthless Truth show on WSLR, interviewed a farmworker leader and a lawyer. We provide a summary of those interviews here.

Johannes Werner: They were on their way to pick watermelons, but they never got to the field. Early Tuesday morning on a state highway near Ocala, a pickup truck sideswept the school-bus type shuttle that was driving farmworkers, most of them hailing from Mexico, to a farm.

Lucas Benitez is one of the founders of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a group that has organized mostly tomato pickers in Southwest Florida. He told Beltran on Wednesday that the deaths and injuries were avoidable.

Lucas Benitez: This is, without doubt, a great tragedy. It’s a tragedy not only for the agricultural community, but for the community of workers in the state of Florida. This tragedy involves farmworkers, but the question is, who is next? It’s very deplorable this type of accident still happens… It hurts to think about how their families have yet to learn about this, that their loved ones cannot come home to their country and hug their children, their spouses, their parents. It’s very sad.

JW: Benitez said the Coalition of Immokalee Workers is working with the Mexican government, by way of the Mexican consulates in Orlando and Miami, to make sure the injured workers get all the medical attention they need, and to send home the bodies…