September 1, 2014

Agriculture

Involuntary Servitude

Bob Snell | 8/1/2005
Slavery at an east Palatka potato farm. The accusation was so spectacular it became front-page news across the nation. To workers advocates, however, the treatment of migrants who ply the potato and cabbage fields of eastern Putnam and western St. Johns counties was old news -- a human tragedy that should have been exposed decades ago.

As the spring harvest season drew to a close, federal agents raided a labor camp operated by Ronald Robert Evans. A Department of Labor affidavit used to justify the raid claimed Evans effectively held dozens of migrant workers captive at the camp, forcing them to work the fields as long as they owed money to the farm's owner.

According to the document, "Evans and his enforcers allegedly employ force or threat of force to keep the workers in a condition of involuntary servitude."

Evans and three of his associates were arrested, though no one has yet been charged with abusing workers. Instead, the 47-year-old Evans was accused of making false statements to federal investigators and allowing unauthorized drivers to transport farmworkers. Evans was released on $50,000 bond and ordered to stay away from the camp. The U.S. Attorney in Tampa says the investigation could bring additional charges. (Neither Evans nor his attorney returned calls seeking comment.)

Federal labor officials say Evans and his associates preyed on homeless men with a promise of shelter, cigarettes, alcohol and illegal drugs. (Officials confiscated 148 rocks of crack cocaine during the raid.)

Once at the camp, the men paid for lodging and purchased drugs on camp-issued credit -- the old "company store" model -- investigators say.

Environmental conditions in and around the Evans camp are also being looked into after investigators found a sewage pipe that dumps directly into a tributary of the St. Johns River. One federal official termed the camp's living quarters "primitive."

While officials trumpeted the raid, critics of northeast Florida's potato and cabbage industry called it a welcome first step in what should be a regionwide crackdown. Lisa Butler, an attorney with Florida Rural Legal Services, says the "company store" is a fact of life at several large potato and cabbage farms in the area.

Tags: Northeast, Agriculture

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