The increasing importance and complexity of farm labor issues was readily apparent at the recent Deep South Fruit & Vegetable Conference in Mobile, Ala. There in the exhibit hall, among the seed, equipment and fertilizer vendors, were two companies that deal primarily in the business of farm labor, offering services such as providing farm labor and insuring that all government regulations are met when hiring and housing migrant labor.

And on the agenda, tucked between sessions on production and harvesting was one entitled, “Working Effectively with Spanish-Speaking Agricultural Workers.” It's a definite sign of the times, and one that we'll continue to see during the winter meeting season.

Most farmers have taken great care in recent years to make sure they pay and treat their workers fairly. But, as is many times the case, their efforts are easily eclipsed by the abuses that are occurring and being reported in the national media.

One of the more noteworthy of these reports comes from The Palm Beach Post, which recently conducted a nine-month investigation into the plight of migrant farmworkers in Florida. The newspaper interviewed farmworkers who reported to being locked up, raped, sickened by pesticides and shorted on pay to the point that they could barely survive.

The report details five modern-day slavery cases — all with roots in Florida — that have been prosecuted in recent years by the U.S. government.

In addition, The Post articles told of two new cases in which men and women say they were locked up while employed in Florida tomato fields.

In Wimauma, south of Tampa, a youth minister reportedly found a chained and padlocked trailer with workers trapped inside. They said they had been “bought” by a labor contractor and were working to pay off smuggling debts.

The Post series also tells of widespread Social Security fraud, stating that Florida's fields are full of illegal workers laboring under bogus Social Security numbers and fake names. Licensed labor contractors and fly-by-night operators accept and sometimes provide fake identities in order to supply growers with cheap labor, according to the report. This fraud robs workers of the minimum wage and subjects them to phony Social Security deductions that wind in a government overflow fund or in contractors' pockets.

A “middleman system,” according to The Post, perpetuates fraud, abuse and slave-like conditions year after year. Contractors, states the report, can handle a few men or hundreds, setting them up with jobs on the land of farmers who distance themselves from the details. Many contractors keep a tight rein on their charges, controlling every aspect of their lives — shelter, meals, transportation and even telephone calls.

The Post also alleges that the political system in Florida is controlled by agricultural interests. In Florida, states the report, farm labor laws are shaped by a tight group of politician-farmers, with fully half of the 14 members of the House Agriculture Committee having strong ties to the industry, including the committee chairwoman.

And despite a raft of tough regulations, the newspaper reports that some workers are denied the basics in the field, including drinking water, toilets and hand-washing facilities. Many do not get the pesticide training required by law, and pesticide violations recorded by state inspectors seldom result in fines. What's more, the report says that Florida farmworkers live in some of the worst housing in the country.

In Palm Beach County, licensed migrant housing exists for only 6,635 workers, not enough to accommodate the 20,000 to 45,000 laborers there for the season. In Lake Worth and West Palm Beach, there is no permitted housing. Instead, says the report, thousands of workers cram into decrepit rentals.

If you're a farmer reading this column who uses migrant workers, odds are you're diligent in following the myriad of rules and regulations that govern such arrangements. But it might be helpful to know that articles like the ones appearing in The Palm Beach Post are being syndicated in newspapers throughout the nation. And for most folks, this will be all they know of migrant farm labor.

e-mail: phollis@primediabusiness.com