The denial expressed by the Florida Department of Agriculture of the persistence and severity of slavery in the fields and the silence of Florida Governor Charlie Crist are disappointing.
The Navarrete case could not be a more a clear-cut example of modern slavery: the victims were literally locked up at night, abused and refused release. Usually, we see different forms of debt peonage and psychological coercion employed to keep workers under a bosses’ illicit control, but here, the mechanisms are laid almost laughably bare.
From a bulletin on the Coalition of Immokalee Workers website:
Since the late 1990’s, Florida’s fields have produced a steady stream of slavery prosecutions, and 2008 was no exception. But what made the slavery operation that came to light in the past year — resulting in the conviction of a family of farm bosses for holding workers against their will right here in Immokalee — stand out were the disturbing details of unmitigated brutality suffered by the workers, including being chained and locked inside U-Haul trucks at night, and beaten by their bosses during the day.
Even more disturbing, perhaps, was the dismissive reaction by a spokesperson for Florida’s Governor Crist when asked for comment on the case by a reporter from Ft. Myers. The spokesperson — Mr. Terence McElroy of the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services — appeared to downplay the significance of forced labor in the state’s fields, not once, but twice. His statements provoked an immediate outcry by human rights, religious, labor, student, and community organizations and leaders across the country.
Among those troubled by Mr. McElroy’s statements — and the governor’s own silence and inaction — was the honorable Mary Robinson, former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, who wrote in a public statement:
“… Slavery persists when government leaders fail to take the necessary action to prevent it. Taking preventive action is a human rights obligation of local, state and national governments… I support the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and others in urging Governor Crist to take immediate steps to combat modern-day slavery in Florida agriculture.”
As 2009 begins, Governor Crist has yet to speak on the subject of slavery in his state’s fields.