Fields of despair

 
 
A mobile home near Immokalee housed two dozen undocumented immigrant farmworkers who were kept in involuntary servitude and docked pay. Their crew chief, Abel Cuello Jr., was sentenced to prison.
A mobile home near Immokalee housed two dozen undocumented immigrant farmworkers who were kept in involuntary servitude and docked pay. Their crew chief, Abel Cuello Jr., was sentenced to prison.
NURI VALLBONA/MIAMI HERALD STAFF

rgreene@miamiherald.com

The recruiters come rolling through in roomy vans, searching for a fresh crop of farmworkers from the homeless shelters, haggard parks and soup kitchens dotting North Florida's urban hubs.

They target the addicted, the vulnerable, the desperate with promises of good pay, cash upfront, cold beer. Some talk of crack cocaine and ready sex.

Step inside that van, say those who have, and journey straight to hell.

Florida is America's second-richest agricultural state. But for the farmhands who labor along the lowest rung of the food chain, the riches are a mirage.

Their world is filled with sweatshop hours, slum housing, poverty pay and criminal abuse. At its extreme, it includes modern-day slavery in a state where oranges adorn license plates and tourists pull in for a free cup of juice when they cross the border.

The brutality in North Florida has an unusual, bitter twist, a Herald examination has found. While most farmworkers in Florida and nationwide are undocumented Mexicans who have trekked through the desert in search of fortune, the laborers who toil unnoticed in hamlets like East Palatka and Hastings are mostly poor black Americans.

They are recruited by crew-chief contractors who serve as middlemen between the farmers who grow crops and the laborers who pick, package and sort them. These bosses can control nearly every aspect of the workers' lives: their housing, their food, their transportation and even their paycheck.

In interviews with The Herald, farmworkers told harrowing stories of life in a hot stretch of North Florida farm country that welcomes passersby with signs saying ``Jesus is Lord, Welcome to Hastings'' and ``Florida's Potato Capital.''

Many were recruited from gathering spots for the homeless - soup kitchens, parks and shelters in Jacksonville, Orlando, Tampa. They say they were lured with vows of good pay, sprinkled with promises of partying and $15 in cash when they reached the farm.

What they didn't know: They would live in slum housing, work long hours for scant pay, and, in several cases, have to pay back $1 of interest for most every $1 loaned to them to buy food - including the $15 that first lured them into the van.

Poor, isolated, without transportation, these men said they became slaves to the boss and their debts. One said he was beaten about the face this year when he couldn't repay his ``debt.'' Two nights later, he slipped away at midnight and walked for hours to escape.

CASES INVESTIGATED Focus is on recruitment by farm labor contractors

Federal prosecutors are now examining cases in which North Florida farm labor contractors recruited from homeless shelters - only to exploit the laborers who stepped into those vans. Investigators confirmed the inquiry, but would not elaborate.

``We've been contacted about this situation,'' Douglas Molloy, managing assistant U.S. attorney in Fort Myers, said last week.

One former worker, Angelo Jennings, said a Hastings crew boss lured him from a scraggly lot across from the Clara White Mission in Jacksonville, a lot where birds snip at dirty bread and shopping carts and beer cans cover the grounds.

``This is when he catches you at your lowest point,'' said Jennings, a recovering drug addict working to reform his ways. ``If you have any good sense, he doesn't want you. He wants you where he can use you.

``If you're tired and hungry, they'll go out and buy some food and a six-pack, and put it on ice.''

Then, almost as an afterthought, he said: ``Just like a rat trying to get some cheese.''

The mission's chief executive officer, Ju'Coby Pittman, said: ``They go from shelter to shelter and prey on them.''

Such tactics became so routine, and the promises so hollow, that Pittman once posted a sign: ``Do not get in the van.''

But the vans still roll through here, through Tampa, through Orlando, on the road to farm country.

A BIG FARM STATE Abuse is an unseen element in Florida's No. 2 industry

Agriculture is a huge business in Florida. The state produces three-fourths of the citrus harvested across the United States each year, and it leads the world in production of grapefruit. In 2000, the top 10 vegetable growers in the Southeastern United States were based in Florida. Across the country, only California boasts a richer agricultural crop.

Yet behind the sunny image of Florida's No. 2 industry, abuse abounds, and it is not limited to one rough boss or one patch of hard-luck laborers.

``It's incredibly widespread,'' said prosecutor Molloy, who has previously sent bosses away for enslaving farmworkers. ``There is someone who has been making money off the misery - and off the hopes and dreams - of other people.''

At the bottom rung of the system are the 200,000 seasonal farmworkers who harvest crops from outside the state's urban hubs to its dusty corridors.

``You've made a job so bad that the only people who are going to do farm work are undocumented aliens or crack addicts,'' said Gregory S. Schell, a Lake Worth lawyer with the Migrant Farmworker Justice Project of Florida Legal Services. ``That's a tremendous indictment of the agricultural industry.''

His criticism is not of the workers who harvest Florida's bountiful crops, but of the industry enriched by their sweat labor.

Most pickers in Florida and nationwide are undocumented foreign workers, and many native farmhands have had run-ins with the law. There is a reason for that worker profile, advocates say: Crew bosses hire the vulnerable because they can exploit them. The laborers, hungry for a fresh start, are quick to take the job.

Florida is home to more crew-chief contractors than any state in the nation, with more than one in three - 3,027 of 8,832 - based in the state. Florida also leads the nation in the number of crew-chief contractors and assistants currently stripped of licenses to work because of labor violations, with 43 percent of the total, The Herald has found. They have relegated workers to shabby housing, cheated them of pay or otherwise skirted federal migrant worker laws.

For a glimpse inside this world, follow Lisa Butler, a Florida Rural Legal Services attorney representing workers who fled their contractors' employ in far North Florida.

Butler does her legwork at night and in potentially dangerous environs, visiting housing camps to pass out fliers letting workers know their rights. More than once, she has been confronted by crew chiefs or their workers.

``There is a pattern up here of severe violations,'' Butler said as she wheeled through Hastings and Spuds and East Palatka, on her way to the next cramped housing camp. ``It's a function of how this industry lets crew leaders control the pay.''

The picture she sees evokes images of America's darkest days.

``I felt like being a slave, just working to support his family,'' farmworker Isiah Brown, 43, a native of South Carolina, said of the boss who controlled him.

That boss, Ronald M. Jones, is a six-foot-four, 250-pound homegrown son who spins through town in a muscular Cadillac Escalade and flashes cash he gets from Florida farmers to employ laborers at the lowest, dirtiest rung of the chain. He did not respond to multiple interview requests.

START OF A JOURNEY Promise of work and pay is irresistible - and elusive

Brown's journey to Jones began on a Sunday in Orlando, when another farm recruiter approached him as he lounged in a park. There's work up north, the man said. Honest day, honest pay.

Brown hopped in, traveling 100 miles to Hastings and neighboring East Palatka, where he ultimately lived in a squalid, illegal hellhole for farmworkers operated by Jones and stood for long hours sorting potatoes for a few dollars' pay.

Brown came to the job poor and said boss Jones made him poorer, fronting him cash for food and supplies, but demanding $1 in interest for most every $1 loaned. With no car and little cash, he was captive to the debts - struggling to work enough hours to pay back the 100 percent interest.

Five former workers said in interviews that Jones forced the same arrangement on them.

``It was the only way I could eat,'' Brown said. ``This farm thing, you put in the work, but the money just don't match the work.''

In East Palatka, he slept in a decrepit trailer along with nine other farmworkers in a trashy compound that housed up to two dozen workers. His trailer had no running water and no air conditioning.

When workers returned to the camp after long days, area drug dealers and bootleggers showed up, Brown said, the bootleggers selling 65-cent beer for $1.25.

``Everybody makes money off farmworkers,'' he said at a nearby park days after fleeing. ``It seems like when farmworkers come to town, everything goes up 20 percent.''

Crew leader Jones was employed by Bulls-Hit Ranch & Farm, maker of gourmet potato chips, to provide farm laborers like Brown.

William Oglesby, 50, a one-time truck driver, also worked at Bulls-Hit under Jones and lived in the same compound.

HIRING OF FARMHANDS Homeless people in park described as `easy targets'

Like Brown, Oglesby had been recruited where the homeless congregate, at Confederate Park in Jacksonville. ``Most of them were easy targets,'' he said.

He said he wasn't homeless but needed work. ``They told me I could go with them today and work,'' he said. ``And they said I could make some money. But money, I haven't seen.''

One week, Oglesby calculated, he should have earned $300 by sorting potatoes and packing them into trucks, rising at 5:30 a.m. and sometimes not returning to the camp until 10 p.m.

His pay stub from Jones showed $154.51. But Oglesby - like Brown - said even the pay stub did not reflect what actually went into his pocket. To understand how that could happen, follow the money.

Bulls-Hit President Thomas R. Lee said he would write Jones a check each week to cover the work completed. But then the boss, not the farmer, was responsible for paying workers from that bounty.

``He pays them, I don't,'' Lee said. ``He has a daily record of what he pays the crew.''

Lee said he told Jones not to make any loans at Bulls-Hit, since such transactions on farm property could reflect upon the farmer. ``I told him that whatever he did off my property was his business,'' Lee said.

Critics say this arrangement is ripe for abuse. When crew bosses control the cash, they are more apt to cheat the workers below them. Simply put, every $1 they skimp from workers is an extra $1 in their pocket. Jones' former workers say they were cheated of thousands.

Contrary to the figure on his pay stub, Oglesby said he got $35 in cash stuffed into an envelope at week's end. Brown said he pocketed $32.06 one week.

The men say Jones did not pay them for all the hours they worked. They say he also docked from their pay the loans and interest he charged them, and billed $30 a week to live in the slum complex.

``They've got a way to make sure you stay in their debt,'' Oglesby said. ``You don't think straight when you're tired and hungry.''

Jones, 40, is known in these parts as ``Too Tall.'' He did not reply to written questions delivered to his house in Hastings, nor did he respond to three requests for an interview placed with his wife, Sylvia.

Jennings, the Jacksonville man recruited near a homeless shelter, said he lived at another Jones compound in Palatka and also sorted potatoes at Bulls-Hit. He said Jones zeroed in on his weakness at that scraggly Jacksonville lot, luring him and four others.

``I've got a deal for you, and y'all can make a lot of money,'' he quoted Jones as saying. ``If you smoke crack, that's the place to be.''

Once he was in Palatka, Jennings said, prostitutes were ready visitors to the housing camp - at a cost. ``They would come there and smoke crack,'' he said.

Jennings is working to get straight at the Trinity Rescue Ministries in Jacksonville. The program supervisor, Cornell Robinson, said: ``They find your weakness and they force this on you.''

The city is a ready target for farm recruiters. The Jacksonville/Duval County hub is home to nearly 15,000 homeless people a year, according to a recent study by the Emergency Services and Homeless Coalition of Jacksonville.

For the homeless who turn to farm work, the cycle can become brutal. Many become fearful of talking publicly.

In late May, The Herald encountered a Jones worker at another of Jones' properties, a house in Hastings. With an elderly man sitting on a porch chair that day, the worker said he had no complaints.

Later that day, the worker was carrying a sack of potatoes back to the house, out of sight of the man in the chair. ``That housing is unfit,'' he said, saying he was billed $30 a week to live there.

Two months later, by chance, The Herald ran into the worker outside a Jacksonville feeding line. Now free of the boss, he said that ``Too Tall'' had recruited him at a soup kitchen with the same tired promises: good pay, nice housing, plentiful food.

``Nothing was true,'' he said. ``It's a death trap. You can't get out of there.''

He said that Jones loaned him money each day, and that a Jones associate loaned him cash each afternoon. Both demanded 100 percent interest. The debts got so heavy, he said, that one week he pocketed $1.08 for six days of work.

``It keeps you in a hole you can never get out of,'' said the worker, who asked that his name not be used.

He said the Jones associate beat him when he didn't have money to repay the debt, hitting him in the face two or three times and knocking him to the ground. ``He told me I better have his money or I'll be in trouble.'' Two days later, he made his midnight exit.

DANGEROUS WORK Injuries and illness are part of the woe some incur

Misery in North Florida isn't limited to Jones' camps, and poverty pay and slum housing are not the only abuses. Many workers, struggling when they start their farm duty, quickly find themselves in dangerous conditions. Injuries, or worse, become part of the trade.

In January, a migrant worker at the nearby Uzzles Labor Camp in Elkton was stabbed to death with a butcher knife after a dispute with another laborer.

Three months later, attorney Butler went to the camp to hand out fliers telling workers of their rights. She was not well received, nor were journalists who accompanied her for this report.

Ron Uzzle, the burly crew boss, became angry when a photographer started snapping pictures. He had little patience for Butler either. ``Does anyone want to talk to these people?'' Uzzle bellowed.

``Hell, no!'' came the reply. Some of his crew members declined fliers from Butler as Uzzle watched. Uzzle refused a request for an interview.

Another nearby complex housed a catalog of pain. To one side of that squat blue building, Butler inspected farmworker William Durham, who pulled up his shirt to expose a stomach covered by an unsightly, itchy white rash.

Durham feared that the rash came from pesticides. ``It did happen on the job,'' he told Butler. She took his story and his picture.

Nearby, Richard Williams, 53, a picker for nine years, worked without a right forefinger.

Wearing a T-shirt that said ``Nature Can't Be Restocked,'' Williams said he thinks pesticides got under his fingernail as he picked winter cabbage in North Carolina in 2001.

``By the time I got here, it was too late,'' he said. The finger was amputated.

Butler took his information. Another potential case at a camp oozing booze and misery.

William Anderson said he heard the promises at a Tampa Salvation Army shelter and went to a camp run by Ronald Evans, a veteran East Palatka contractor. Evans did not reply to four interview requests, nor respond to written questions.

``A van rolled around,'' Anderson recounted. ``They said, `Are you looking for work? . . . We've got a swimming pool.' When we got there, it was more like a slave camp. After he gets you there, he's got you.''

At night at the camp, next to the dinner line, more goods were for sale. ``You get your cigarettes, your beer and your drugs. Everything was there on the camp,'' Anderson said from an upstate shelter, to which he turned after leaving.

``A couple of guys said they owed $10,000. You might as well owe them your soul, because where can you go?

``I'm not going to sugarcoat it. We were doing what everyone else was doing. You do your beer, your cigarettes and your drugs.''

After four months of work, he left with $90 in his pocket, he said. ``I've been down and out. Right now, I'm sleeping wherever I can.''

Tammy Byrer, executive director of the St. Francis House shelter in St. Augustine, which provides a roof and job counseling for displaced workers like Anderson, said Florida's farmers surely know what's going on.

``Don't ask, don't tell,'' was how she described the prevailing attitude, as volunteers prepared 600 sandwiches delivered daily to area farmworkers.

``Somebody needs to come up to the plate.''

Herald research editor Elisabeth Donovan contributed to this report.

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