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Laborers-turned-activists win RFK human rights award

Migrant workers hailed for exposing violations in Fla.

IMMOKALEE, Fla. -- Romeo Ramirez never planned to be a federal informant, let alone set foot in the gilded corridors of Capitol Hill.

Arriving in South Florida at age 15, the Guatemalan villager silently cast his lot with the thousands of other Spanish-speaking immigrants who toil in the region's vast citrus groves and tomato farms.

What he saw -- forced labor, armed guards in the fields, economic servitude -- turned the slight, soft-spoken farmworker into an organizer and activist. He joined a group called the Coalition for Immokalee Workers, went undercover, testified in federal court, and helped put three labor crew bosses behind bars for the next decade.

Those efforts have earned Ramirez, now 23, and two other colleagues the 2003 Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award. The trio will be honored tomorrow at a Washington ceremony hosted by Senator Edward M. Kennedy. Ethel Kennedy, the widow of Robert Kennedy, will present the award, which for the first time in its 20-year history will go to American human rights activists.

Previous winners came from Haiti, Indonesia, Liberia, and other nations where human rights violations are more commonly known.

"Human rights violations don't just occur overseas," said Lucas Benitez, 27, a Mexican migrant worker and coalition leader who also won the RFK award. "They occur right here in the United States."

Since 1996, federal prosecutors have brought five cases of human slavery to trial in South Florida with the help of the coalition, which grew out of a Catholic Charities' group and was aided by a pair of Brown University-educated attorneys from Florida Rural Legal Services.

The third RFK award winner, 31-year-old Julia Gabriel, was kept in virtual slavery in South Carolina by a pair of contract labor supervisors who levied smuggling charges on her and other farmworkers after an illegal border crossing in Arizona, federal prosecutors said.

No matter how long they worked, their debts only grew, the tally multiplying due to food, shelter, and other costs of living. Beatings were frequent and armed guards a constant presence.

Gabriel eventually escaped, moved to Florida, and testified against her former bosses, two of whom received 15-year prison sentences. She now works as a landscaper but remains active in the Immokalee coalition.

The group's work involves not only human-rights investigations but broader campaigns to improve working conditions and wages. Benitez, Ramirez, and other organizers are staples on the college lecture circuit, drumming up support through hunger strikes, protest marches, work stoppages, and the coalition's primary effort, a nationwide boycott of Taco Bell.

The fast-food giant gets many of its tomatoes from a Naples-based grower that pays laborers 40 cents for each 32-pound bucket of the crop. The coalition is calling for a penny-per-pound raise, an increase that would generate about $70 a day for each picker, provided he fills 100 buckets, or more than 1.5 tons of tomatoes.

Both Taco Bell and Yum! Brands Inc., its corporate parent, have refused to meet with the farmworkers' group. Corporate officials call the wage dispute a third-party issue between growers and workers.

Louisville-based Yum's holdings include Kentucky Fried Chicken, Pizza Hut, and Long John Silver's. Yum corporate officials did not return a request for comment.

In addition to bestowing the three activists with a $30,000 prize, the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Center for Human Rights plans to throw its political weight behind the wage battle, said center director Todd Howland. He called the process a matter of "opening doors."

"We're giving this particular struggle a new voice," Holland said.

The struggle begins in earnest the day after the award ceremony with a protest at a Taco Bell in the nation's capital.

The center and its allies will lobby Congress to extend collective bargaining rights, overtime pay entitlement, and other fair labor standards to the agricultural industry, which is exempt from many of the laws covering other workers.

Yum board members have already received a letter from Holland alerting them to the RFK center's award -- along with a not-so-gentle nudge to sit down at the bargaining table.

"We know this change isn't going to come tomorrow, or even in six months," said Ramirez. "We're going to keep fighting until we see the change."

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