U.S. Labor Secretary Hilda Solis stands inside the produce truck that houses the Florida Modern-Day Slavery Museum. The truck is a replica of the one in which the Navarrete family held slaves they forced to pick tomatoes in Immokalee fields. / Amy Bennett Williams/news-press.com
1:10 A.M. — U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis toured Immokalee on Monday "to show the (Obama) administration's support for the farmworker community and in the fight against labor abuses."
It was the first visit by an Obama Cabinet member to Southwest Florida.
Rural Immokalee faces myriad labor challenges including the recent devastating freezes, perennially low wages and the stigma of being dubbed ground zero for modern-day slavery.
Solis' first stop was the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, where she donned headphones to speak on the nonprofit group's low-power community radio station.
Outlining her department's new "Podemos Ayudar (We Can Help)" campaign, which encourages workers to report labor abuses no matter their immigration status, Solis said.
"This department of labor is on the side of the worker. With or without papers, everyone has rights and there should be no fear of retaliation," she said.
Solis also spoke about "U" visas for victims of crimes such as human trafficking, before climbing up the stairs of a produce truck replicating the site of such crimes: the coalition's Florida Modern-Day Slavery Museum.
The stuffy, windowless truck is like the the one Immokalee's Navarrete family kept its slaves in - 12 men forced to pick tomatoes in area farm fields - before family members went to federal prison in 2008.
The dark interior was so hot that Solis shucked her jacket as she moved from exhibit to exhibit, shaking her head at displays detailing Florida's seven federal slavery cases successfully prosecuted over the past 15 years.
Solis has a history with Immokalee; she campaigned there for Obama as a congresswoman and she spoke about the town in the first speech she made as a Cabinet member.
In February, she joined the 4,000-member coalition in Washington, D.C. as it signed a three-way agreement with East Coast Growers and Compass, the world's largest food-service company, to improve Florida tomato pickers' wages and working conditions.
Solis also participated in a roundtable discussion with community members at the Immokalee Technical Center that covered green jobs, more employment training and worker safety.
She told the approximately 150 audience members her department has added more than 250 new investigators in the past year, but asked for the public's help as well.
"We can't be everywhere, and we need people to help be our eyes and ears," Solis said.
Throughout the visit, she urged workers to raise their voices without fear.
"I'm here because of my boss' commitment to all workers and their rights," she said.