Last year, residents of a migrant labor camp in Hendry County faced one problem after another. The septic tank backed up, the commodes broke and burners on the stove leaked. Holes in the walls and windows without screens let in vicious summer bugs. The plumbing in one trailer leaked underneath it for days.
Inspectors found the camp an unsatisfactory place to live 11 times in 2014 — which was actually an improvement for Oak Hammock.
years have been far worse. Those conditions are not unique for migrant
crop workers who venture to the fields each day to pick tomatoes,
oranges or strawberries. Florida’s migrant laborers are regularly forced
to live in squalor — in dormitories and mobile homes where sewage backs
up into kitchens, where leaks turn to mold and broken windows expose
tenants to Florida’s extreme weather and unrelenting pests.
than half of all Florida camps received an “unsatisfactory” grade from
the Florida Department of Health during the last five years, and
inspectors wrote up 338 facilities two or more times for keeping workers
in filthy, dangerous homes, according to a Herald-Tribune analysis of
officials regulate migrant labor camps in 32 counties, showing up at
properties from the Georgia border to the Everglades twice a quarter to
investigate things like floor space, sewage, lighting and water supply.
At least 35,000 people live in these places, which can be overseen by
property managers or the same farmers who run the fields where migrants
work. Buses collect laborers in the early morning to take them to their
jobs, which can be up to two hours away.
Circumstance leaves migrants with few housing options.
American rental market is unfamiliar to these workers, most of whom
moved straight from Latin America to the fields. Many speak no English
and cannot read a lease. A lack of capital and credit makes standard
rental deposits a reach.
Workers choose to live in migrant camps because they are the easiest and cheapest option, which allows them to send money home.
state says it is doing everything it can to protect migrants and, to be
certain, most Florida camps are regularly found to be clean and
“The program works to reduce the risk of disease and
injury among migrant farm workers through ongoing education and by
establishing comprehensive and uniform procedures for permitting and
inspecting migrant housing to ensure compliance with standards,” wrote
the Florida Department of Health in a statement to the Herald-Tribune.
But the system does not catch all the violators.
migrant camp owners must be permitted. The state regulates 827 camps
with the capacity to house about 35,000 migrants — less than 40 percent
of the total migrant workforce believed to be in Florida.
means tens of thousands of migrant farmworkers are living in
unpermitted housing where a lack of oversight means the worst conditions
likely go unreported. There is no way to know how many camps operate
beyond the reach of regulation.
Inspectors look in rural
neighborhoods for signs of farmworkers — fruit buckets and work boots
outside of homes — and can issue anyone illegally operating a camp a
But they rarely do.
Regulators often don’t take
strong action against repeat offenders, and some counties are not as
active in seeking illegal camps as others. Counties like Collier and
Hendry have a large number of violations only because they are the most
These two counties have inspectors dedicated
to regulating migrant labor camps, whereas officials elsewhere are
spread thin by large workloads.
To understand the conditions of permitted camps, the newspaper read more than 840 pages of inspection reports, analyzed more than 25,000 records and interviewed about 40 migrants, inspectors, attorneys, health officials and housing experts.
Among its findings:
The system allows camp owners, again and again, to ignore dangerous
conditions. Almost 70 percent of camps received unsatisfactory marks on
at least two consecutive inspections for the same violation. For
instance, inspectors noted a ceiling leak in one LaBelle unit in
September 2013 and returned six months later to find mold.
• A few
camp owners account for a large portion of the problem. About one in 10
unsatisfactory cases since 2009 were isolated to five camps in LaBelle,
all run by the same operator. Three of these camps have racked up a
total of 175 negative inspections over the last five years, making them
the state’s most cited facilities.
• The inspection process favors
camp owners. State workers give operators a heads-up before they visit,
reschedule inspections at owners' convenience and rarely impose strict
penalties for those out of compliance. Inspectors issued seven citations
— the strongest possible punishment — in the last five years. Such
toothless enforcement leads to quick, temporary fixes by providing
little incentive for compliance.
• Enforcement varies from one
county to the next, which means camps in less-regulated counties are
slipping through the cracks. Even though the state provides statutory
guidance, inspection manuals and mandatory training for inspectors, some
counties are less aggressive than others. In Pasco, there have been 13
recorded inspections on two camps in the last five years, while there
were more than 3,000 in Hendry County on 90 camps during the same
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