Nuri Vallbona

As Interviewed by Kachelle Kaufhold, March 2012

Nuri Vallbona: In Her Own Words

My name is Nuri Vallbona and Iím a photojournalist. I worked at the Miami Herald in Florida when I found out about the modern slave camps. I was horrified when they told me about them. I couldnít sleep at night sometimes because I couldnít get the images of the workers out of my head.

I was chosen to help cover the story by the reporter; he chose me because he liked my work and he knew I spoke Spanish and that we would be communicating with migrant workers.

We followed a lawyer who liked to work with farm workers who would try to inform field workers of their rights. We were going to photograph her working, which is when we found the slave camps. Most of them were in North Florida outside a little town called Palatka, Florida. A lot of the camps were located in areas that were very remote and people normally didnít drive or come by so most people wouldnít know they were there, including law enforcement. Most camps are undetected because of this.

Recruitment was usually done by crew leaders, who were hired by the owners of the fields. The crew leaders were responsible for hiring the men and bringing them in to do the job of picking the fruits and vegetables. Most slaves in North Florida were recruited form homeless shelters, they would be promised a solid job, sometimes a hotel with a pool, and they would get paid really good wages. When most of the men got there, they found they worked all day and got paid only what they needed for food which they had to pay off at the end of each week with added interest; so they never paid off their debt and they couldnít leave. A lot of the time, crew leaders give the workers free drugs and then later charge them an outrageous amount of money for the drugs and alcohol so they have to stay.

At the peak of the growing season, the workers sometimes had to work fifteen hours a day. Usually it depended how many fruits and vegetables they had to process. The workers lived in dirty wooden shacks without air conditioning in ninety degree heat. Some showers had so much mold the workers had to shower with flip flops on.

They couldnít leave because if they did start walking the owners and crew leaders would go looking for them and sometimes even law enforcement would come pick them up and take them back. Some workers hiked through the woods almost eighteen miles to a homeless shelter in St. Augustine where they would be taken in. If the workers were caught they would be severely beaten and one man described being put into a box for solitary confinement and was only fed bread. I could never confirm this, but I heard more stories like this, too.

After we reported about this, the government ran an investigation and one manís camp was shut down almost right away. Another manís camp was raided by the federal government and shut down a year later. Once we reported it, the federal government started paying more attention.

Are these slave camps rare?

Not in north Florida. Actually a lot of these growers have land that goes up and down the east coast so the crew leaders can travel. As the growing season ended in Florida, they would go north into Georgia and North Carolina, and we imagine the same things are going on up there.

What we can do to stop this is paying the workers directly based on how much they worked instead of paying the crew leaders who decide how much to pay so they canít charge these men and women exorbitant interest, which is a law the Florida lawmakers are trying to pass. The other solution is to hold the growers accountable when the crew leaders abuse the workers. Another thing is they can have more inspections of these camps because they are in horrible conditions. These are just a few things that can be done to stop this from happening.