Miami Herald, December 16, 2003

 

 

FIELDS OF DESPAIR
Farmers file suit against field bosses


A federal lawsuit alleges widespread worker abuse in North Florida

farm country, the latest sign of trouble in the nation's second-richest

agriculture state.


BY RONNIE GREENE
rgreene@herald.com

 

Twelve farmworkers have filed suit against a North Florida labor boss

and the potato farmer who hired him, saying they suffered poverty pay,

illegal loans, slum housing and physical abuse at the hands of the boss.

 

The lawsuit, filed in Jacksonville federal court, is the latest sign that Florida's

second-richest industry is plagued by abuse.

 

A Herald series in August, Fields of Despair, disclosed fresh abuses and

long-standing ills at the bottom of Florida's fields and farms. The new suit

was filed against two men profiled in the series, labor boss Ronald Jones

and farmer Thomas R. Lee of Bulls-Hit Ranch & Farm.

 

Beyond its specific allegations, the suit lays bare an arrangement that worker

advocates say is symptomatic of the industry's many woes: That Florida farmers

often hire labor bosses as contractors to bring them workers, but turn the other

way when exploitation occurs.

 

''This case typifies what's happened over and over and over again in this industry,''

said Lisa Butler, the Florida Rural Legal Services attorney who filed the suit. `

`They're the product of the farm employers simply giving their crew leaders a

free hand to rip the workers off.''

 

Neither defendant could be reached for comment, though messages were left for both.

 

The dozen laborers named in the suit say they were hired by Jones,

a Hastings farm contractor, to sort and pack potatoes at Bulls-Hit,

a nearby farm making gourmet chips. Farmer Lee hired Jones to provide

the laborers in 2002 and 2003.

 

The workers, many impoverished when they began their farm duty, say Jones

stuck them in housing so squalid that exposed sewage covered the grounds,

bathroom floors were rotted, toilets overflowed and roofs leaked.

 

Though Jones promised minimum wage of $5.15 an hour, the suit contends,

the laborers earned far less. Jones fronted workers loans and advances --

then billed them ''illegal credits'' of 100 percent interest. He docked their pay for rent.

 

One worker was not paid at all, the suit contends, and others received

pay statements that ``routinely misrepresented the wages actually paid.''

 

Two plaintiffs, Dortha Jones and Michael Sapp, say Jones battered them in

June 2003 after each complained about the work conditions.

 

The crew boss ''shoved, battered and threatened'' Jones and ''struck and

battered'' Sapp, the lawsuit said.

 

SKIRTED LAW?

Jones is accused of repeatedly skirting the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural

Worker Protection Act, the federal law meant to shield farmworkers from abuse.

He lacked permits to house many workers, for instance, and broke rules regarding

pay and notification of workers rights, the suit said.

 

Jones did not reply to a request for comment placed with his wife Monday.

Earlier this year, he declined numerous interview requests.

 

According to the suit, farmer Lee was ultimately responsible for the workers

because he hired Jones to bring laborers to him.

 

''Bulls-Hit is totally responsible for ensuring that the people that they permit

to work for them receive the wages due,'' said attorney Butler.

 

Lee failed to keep wage and other records required by law, the suit contends,

while employing the labor contractor ``without first taking reasonable steps

to determine that defendant Jones was authorized to engage in all activities

for which he was utilized.''

 

Lee did not return calls to his cellular phone Monday.

 

In an earlier interview with The Herald, however, he had defended labor boss Jones --

and disparaged some workers who sorted and packed his potatoes.

 

BAIT AND SWITCH

The Herald had interviewed several laborers who said Jones and others recruited

them from homeless centers with big promises. When they reached the sweltering

North Florida farm country, however, the workers found low wages, squalid

housing and loans with 100 percent interest.

 

Some said they pocketed as little as $30 a week while Jones drove through

town in fine cars.

 

'I felt like [I was] being a slave, just working to support his family,''

farmworker Isiah Brown told the newspaper. Brown is now one of the

plaintiffs in the case.

 

Asked to respond to those and other allegations earlier this year, Lee had said:

`I don't believe that they are being abused and being mistreated, unless

they asked for it.''

 

Farmworkers' pain isn't limited to North Florida. In recent years, 12

Florida labor bosses, smugglers and henchmen have gone to prison

for abusing or enslaving workers.

 

Across Florida, federal investigators are stepping up inquiries into

farmworker exploitation.

In Washington, key members of Congress have filed a bill that could

grant legal status to up to 100,000 Florida farmworkers.

 

One bill supporter submitted The Herald series to the Congressional

Record as proof of the need for reform.