Advocates for migrant agricultural workers in Florida are demanding an apology from Gov. Ron DeSantis saying he was out of line when he recently blamed “Hispanic workers and day laborers” for the rise in coronavirus cases.
The advocates say the migrant workers, whose employers were not providing them with personal protective equipment when the pandemic started, are often vulnerable to labor standards violations and dangerous living conditions.
“Some of these guys go to work in a school bus, and they are all just packed there like sardines, going across Palm Beach County or some of these other places, and there are all these opportunities to have transmission,” DeSantis said.
DeSantis said the new cases are related to an increase in testing within at-risk communities. The advocates say health education and testing activities came too late and DeSantis failed to recognize that the employers’ mistreatment of impoverished workers is what is contributing to the public health risks.
Lourdes Villanueva, the director of Farmworker Advocacy for Redlands Christian Migrant Association, said she asked DeSantis to help save the lives of migrant workers back in April. She said DeSantis ignored her and failed to provide the resources needed.
“He just can’t outright say that’s why the numbers have gone up,” Villanueva said. “That’s absolutely not correct.”
Cramer Verde, the political director of the League of United Latin American Citizens, viewed DeSantis’ statement as ethnic discrimination. He and other advocates said DeSantis needs to put a stop playing the blaming game and take responsibility.
“This is unacceptable and we should not be treated this way. He should be releasing an apology to everyone,” Verde said. “He is not taking into consideration that he is not providing the help that this community needs.”
Before the pandemic, the Florida Department of Health established a program with “comprehensive and uniform procedures” for permitting and inspecting migrant labor camps and residential migrant housing.
In many federal labor cases, attorneys have pointed out employers exploited workers who didn’t know they had rights. Douglas Molloy, the former Chief Assistant U.S. Attorney for Southwest Florida, once said South Florida’s tomato fields were “ground zero for modern-day slavery.”
According to the 2015-16 National Agricultural Workers Survey, about 44% of the respondents in the southeastern U.S. were from Mexico and 11% were from Central America. Some of the migrant workers only speak distinct indigenous languages. Guatemala, where some of the workers are from, has 24. This complicates the efficacy of the state’s educational outreach.