The undersigned organizations submit this letter amici regarding the question of corporate and government responsibility for the poor human rights conditions of agricultural workers in Florida. The human rights of Florida’s farm workers are under serious threat .

Dear Mr. Cantón:

The undersigned organizations submit this letter amici regarding the question of corporate and government responsibility for the poor human rights conditions of agricultural workers in Florida. The human rights of Florida’s farm workers are under serious threat because of:

  • Forced labor and slavery: More than 1,000 agricultural workers in Florida have been subjected to forced labor and slavery. United States has criminally prosecuted these crimes under federal laws in six successful cases over the past seven years, resulting in the sentencing of individuals to prison terms as lengthy as fifteen years. Despite these welcome efforts at enforcement, ongoing investigations by the U.S. Department of Justice indicate that agricultural workers in Florida continue to work under slavery and forced labor conditions.1
  • Poor working conditions and lack of access to health care: Approximately 83 percent of agricultural workers nationally have no health care coverage. Most also work excessive hours, suffer increased injuries due to the physically demanding nature of their work, and are routinely exposed to dangerous toxins.2
  • Low wages: The wages of agricultural workers in Florida are insufficient to guarantee the preservation of health and well-being. Agricultural workers in Florida earn from U.S. $2,500 to U.S. $7,500 on average per year, depending on a number of factors including immigration status. Even if a worker picks tomatoes (a common crop in Florida) at the standard pace during a 12 hour day, he or she would harvest daily at least over 1 ½ tons and earn U.S. $50 per day, which amounts to an annual full time salary of U.S. $8,000. The poverty line in the United States for 2004 was defined by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services as U.S. $9,310 for a single-person household. Therefore, such wages are far from sufficient for workers to access decent housing and other necessities.3

The United States government should fulfill its responsibilities to protect agricultural workers in Florida from human rights violations and take steps to prevent further violations. The private sector, in particular the corporate sector, should comply with the law as well as recognize its role in ensuring that the human rights of its workers are respected. The U.N. Norms on the Responsibilities of Transnational Corporations and other Business Enterprises with Regard to Human Rights, which remain under study and are not binding, but do represent evolving standards within international law, state:

    Within their respective spheres of activity and influence, transnational corporations and other business enterprises have the obligation to promote, secure the fulfillment of, respect, ensure respect of and protect human rights recognized in international as well as national law.

Id. at para. 1.4

In 2002 a federal court presiding over the Florida slavery cases pointed to the unique capacity of corporations to protect human rights. Judge Moore of the U.S. Southern District Court of Florida, referring to corporate actors, stated that “there are others at another level in this system of fruit-picking, at a higher level, that to some extent are complicit in one way or another in how these activities occur.”.5 The concentration of buying power among a small number of corporate purchasers of agricultural products in Florida makes them uniquely positioned to use their influence to demand greater respect for farm workers’ rights and improved working conditions for farm workers in that state. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) has called on them to do so.

While purchasing corporations are well-positioned to influence the human rights situation in the agricultural sector in Florida, the obligation to respect and ensure rights primarily resides with the U.S. government. Currently, the U.S. government has a discriminatory scheme for labor protection that excludes farm workers from the National Labor Relations Act, denying them protection for exercising their right to organize and form unions. Similarly, unlike most workers, farm workers are not guaranteed overtime pay under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). Moreover, even existing minimum wage and workplace safety protections, found respectively in the FLSA and the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA), are severely under-enforced, contributing to the poor working conditions in Florida’s agricultural sector.

While the United States has rightly pursued prosecutions for forced labor and slavery, it also must take action to prevent such violations. Prevention requires addressing discrimination and ensuring basic economic and social rights. It also requires allowing agricultural workers who have suffered human rights violations to switch employers without facing immigration consequences and the development of legislative and other mechanisms for ensuring corporations are held accountable (ideally both growers and purchasers) if they knowingly profit from severe human rights abuses such as slavery and forced labor.6

As an important first step to address this situation, we call on the Commission to investigate these conditions among agricultural workers in Florida through site visits and further reporting. Secondly, we urge the Commission to ask the government of the United States to consider measures such as eliminating discrimination against farm workers in existing labor laws, granting workers who face serious abuses in their workplaces the opportunity to switch employers without immigration repercussions, and holding corporate purchasers accountable for knowingly purchasing products that were produced under conditions amounting to one of the most egregious human rights violations—slavery and forced labor.

We thank the Commission for addressing this serious human rights situation in the United States.

Amnesty International
Center for Constitutional Rights
Global Rights
Human Rights First
Human Rights Watch
National Economic and Social Rights Initiative
Oxfam, America
RFK Memorial Center on Human Rights
U.S. Human Rights Network

[1]See Like Machines in the Fields: Workers Without Rights in American Agriculture, [hereinafter Oxfam Report] Oxfam America, March 2004, p.10. Slavery and forced labor are clearly prohibited by human rights law. The American Declaration on the Rights and Duties of Man [hereinafter American Declaration], which is not binding on the United States, Article XXV states that “[n]o person may be deprived of his liberty except in the cases and according to the procedures established by pre-existing law.” Labor and forced slavery are also prohibited by a wide range of international human rights instruments applicable to the U.S. including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, U.N. Res. 2200A (XXI), entered into force March 23, 1976 and ratified by the U.S. on June 8, 1992; and the Declaration on Fundamental Principals and Rights at Work, para. 2(b), International Labour Organization (1998).
[2]See Oxfam Report, pp. 13-16. The right to health and to safe work conditions are protected by Article XI of the American Declaration, which states that “every person has the right to the preservation of his health through … medical care, to the extent permitted by public and community resources” and by Article XIV that states that “every person has the right to work under proper conditions.”
[3]See Oxfam report, pp. 2, 18, 21-22. Art. 14 of the American Declaration guarantees the right of every person who works “to receive such remuneration as will, in proportion to his capacity and skill, assure him a standard of living suitable for himself and for his family.”
[4]The U.N. Norms on the Responsibilities of Transnational Corporations and other Business Enterprises with Regard to Human Rights, U.N. Doc. E/CN.4/Sub.2/2003/12/Rev.2 (2003).
[5]United States v. Ramos, No. 01-14019-CR-Moore, Sentencing Hearing, Tr. at 33 (S.D. Fla. Nov. 20, 2002).
[6]International and regional human rights treaties require governments to respect and ensure human rights. See, e.g. International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, article 2. The obligation to "ensure" has been interpreted to require prevention and punishment of private interference with protected rights. See Velasquez Rodriguez Case, Inter-Am. Ct. H.R. 35, Ser. C, No. 4, OAS/Ser.L/V/III.19, doc. 13 (1988); X & Y v. The Netherlands, Series A. No. 91, Application No. 8978/80 Eur. Ct. J. 8 EHRR 235 (1986) (State must provide remedies for private sexual assault of a mentally disabled person.).