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[PCUSANEWS] Labor camp owners guilty of enslaving workers

From News Service <newsservice@CTR.PCUSA.ORG>
Date Fri, 1 Sep 2006 15:51:05 -0400

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06450 September 1, 2006

Labor camp owners guilty of enslaving workers

Tip from PC(USA)-backed farmworkers led to convictions by Evan Silverstein

LOUISVILLE * Three years after a group of Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)-backed farmworkers tipped authorities to alleged wrongdoing, the owners of two migrant labor camps were found guilty in federal court of luring drug addicts and homeless people into indentured servitude by forcing them to work off debts from the purchase of crack cocaine, cigarettes and beer.

Ronald Evans Sr., 60, was found guilty Aug. 25 in Jacksonville, FL, of operating a "continuing criminal enterprise," which carries a sentence ranging from a mandatory 20 years to life, and a fine of up to $2 million, according to a U.S. Department of Justice statement.

Evans and his wife, Jequita, 45, were both found guilty by a jury of selling more than 50 grams of crack cocaine, the statement said. That charge carries a sentence of 10 years to life and a fine of up to $4 million. A sentencing date has not been set.

Federal authorities were first notified about the case in 2003 by the Florida-based Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) (, which was contacted by workers at one of the camps, said Laura Germino, the Coalition's anti-slavery projects coordinator.

The CIW is an organization of agricultural workers that says it seeks justice for farm workers and promotes their fair treatment in accordance with national and international labor standards. The CIW had already worked with the Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Investigation to investigate and prosecute five cases of slavery in recent years.

"We feel good that yet another rotten apple, one of many rotten apples that exists in the agricultural industry, is now behind bars and paying for the years of abuse that he caused for so many workers," said Lucas Benitez, a CIW staff member. "It's an example of one of the worse kinds of exploitation that we've seen in recent years. It goes to show that this kind of exploitation can happen to anyone, including American citizens."

Benitez was one of three Coalition members selected for the prestigious 2003 Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights award in recognition of their work fighting modern-day slavery.

The PC(USA) and other religious bodies have faithfully supported the CIW, including its national boycott of fast-food giant Taco Bell. During the nearly four-year-long campaign, the PC(USA) helped arrange meetings between Taco Bell's parent company, Louisville-based Yum! Brands Inc., and members of the Coalition.

The boycott led to a groundbreaking agreement in March 2005 that improved farm worker wages and established the first code of conduct for Florida agricultural suppliers that guarantees a meaningful role for farm workers in the protection of their own rights.

During the trial, U.S. District Judge Timothy J. Corrigan ordered Evans and his wife, who had been free on bond, taken into custody.

Evidence showed the couple recruited men from homeless shelters, charged them $50 a week for room and board and put them to work in potato and cabbage fields for minimum wages, according to the Department of Justice statement. At the end of the day, workers were allowed to purchase crack cocaine, cigarettes and beer at inflated prices on credit, the statement said.

On payday, workers often found they owed money to Evans and his wife.

"Causing homeless people to incur large debts by selling them crack, cigarettes and beer forces these individuals into a form of servitude that is morally and legally reprehensible," U.S. Attorney Paul Perez said in the statement.

The couple operated migrant farm labor camps in East Palatka, FL, and in Newton Grove, NC.

Ronald Evans was also convicted of trafficking in untaxed cigarettes and violating the Clean Water Act and the Migrant and Seasonal Farm Worker Protection Act. He and his wife were both found guilty of structuring cash transactions to avoid financial reporting requirements.

Defense attorneys William Kent and Richard Kuritz told that Associated Press that they were disappointed with the verdicts and planned to appeal.

"Thanks to CIW's work, the U.S. Department of Justice has successfully prosecuted yet another case of slavery," said the Rev. Noelle Damico, the PC(USA)'s Associate for Fair Food ( "But if we are to end forced labor in agriculture, we need to eliminate the market conditions that help to create it. We must ensure that the retail food corporations, like McDonald's, that demand cheap produce safeguard the rights of workers in their supply chains."

Damico said an important step toward ending exploitation in the fields came on June 23 when the PC(USA)'s 217th General Assembly in Birmingham, AL, overwhelmingly passed a resolution supporting ongoing work with the CIW.

The resolution affirms the church's partnership with the Coalition and authorizes the denomination's General Assembly Council to support consumer action such as a boycott if it's in concert with the church's boycott criteria and in partnership with the Alliance for Fair Food (

Damico, a United Church of Christ minister, also serves as the PC(USA)'s liaison to the Alliance for Fair Food, which works in partnership with the CIW on human rights and socially responsible purchasing in the fast-food industry.

The Alliance, which formally unifies the PC(USA), NAACP Chairman Julian Bond, United Students Against Sweatshops, Grammy Award-winner Bonnie Raitt, the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Human Rights, and Amnesty International U.S.A. among many others, has committed to organizing with the CIW in its latest campaign against fast-food hamburger giant McDonald's.

The General Assembly action also reaffirmed that the PC(USA) will continue to work with CIW through the Coalition's Campaign for Fair Food, to demand that retail food corporations, like McDonald's and Burger King, use their enormous resources and market power to ensure human rights in their supply chains.


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