At Work in the Fields of the Lord

Long hours. Low pay. Hardly any rights. It's the life of Palm Beach County's hidden underclass: migrant farm workers.

Six years ago Marie Nonombre came to South Florida for one simple reason: to work. This was not an option in Haiti, her homeland. "You finish your school, and nobody hires you," she says simply.

Unfortunately the States haven't been much kinder. At 26 years old, the single mother of two finds herself unemployed. Her main task on this November afternoon is to clean her apartment, a dimly lit one-bedroom affair in downtown Belle Glade. Framed pictures of flowers hang on the walls, peach curtains block the sunlight, and Montel Williams is on the TV, interviewing twins who prostitute themselves to support drug addictions.

In the fall of 1997, Nonombre was one of some 125 Haitian women in Belle Glade hired by Thomas Brothers Farms to harvest vegetables. The company, one of the largest vegetable growers in the country, promised them a minimum wage of $6.36 an hour and an average of at least 30 hours of work per week from October until June.

But according to Nonombre, when they arrived for work the first day, the crew leader informed them that they would earn a "piece" rate -- generally 40 cents for each bucket of tomatoes picked, 50 cents for bell peppers, or 35 cents for cucumbers. While these are standard rates for harvesting vegetables, it left the women with significantly less than the $6.36 an hour they had been promised. "We have baby sitters, and we can't even earn the money to pay them," recalls Nonombre, her eyes fixed on the floor.

Despite the salary arrangement, Nonombre says she worked hard for Thomas Brothers. Each morning a bus run by Thomas Brothers' farm labor contractor, Ramon Sanchez Enterprises, would shuttle the women from downtown Belle Glade to the fields. At first three buses were required to transport the workers, but the ranks of laborers quickly dwindled. Many of the women were fired or quit.

In January, Nonombre missed a day of work. She says she had to take her daughter, who has sickle cell anemia, to the doctor. When she showed up for work the next day, the bus driver told her she no longer had a job.

Since that time, work has been tough to come by. Earlier this year she traveled to New York state to pack corn, leaving her kids in the care of her aunt. She has not worked since July, getting by instead on a government unemployment check. "Here, where I am now, it's very difficult to find good work," she says.

Nonombre is typical of the migrant farm workers who toil in the shadow of Palm Beach's opulence. She has little education, speaks no English, and knows almost nothing about her legal rights. (The situation is even worse for undocumented workers, who live in terror of the government. By most estimates illegal workers make up more than 40 percent of the farm worker population in South Florida.) What distinguishes Nonombre from her comrades is that she, along with 24 of her former coworkers, is now suing Thomas Brothers Farms for breach of contract. The women claim that they were systematically and illegally fired from their jobs so that the farm could bring in Mexican workers at a lower wage.

"These are clients who are not looking for a handout," says Greg Schell, an attorney with the Migrant Farmworker Justice Project (MFJP) in Belle Glade, which, along with Florida Rural Legal Services, is representing the women. "They work hard and all they want is to be paid what they're owed."

The lawsuit is one of two the MFJP has filed since June against Thomas Brothers Farms charging mistreatment of workers. The second case, a class-action suit, could involve as many as a thousand Central Americans who have worked in Thomas Brothers' packinghouses over the last four years. The workers claim they were charged $3 per day for transportation to and from the packinghouse, bringing their compensation below the federally mandated minimum wage of $5.15. The workers also claim they were not paid properly for overtime work and that social security taxes were withheld from their paychecks but never paid to the government.

The abuse of migrant workers -- first widely publicized by Edward R. Murrow's 1960 documentary Harvest of Shame -- has given rise to a set of federal and state labor standards regulating everything from the insurance required to transport workers to the conditions of immigrant housing. But farm owners regularly flout these regulations, and often the government has no other recourse than to impose fines that amount to a slap on the wrist. Thomas Brothers, as well as its primary labor contractor, has a lengthy history of violating federal labor laws.

Because of the inherent instability of farm work, with available jobs shifting from season to season and region to region, labor unions are unrealistic means of protecting workers. Lawsuits are often the only means available to rein in abuses. "We hope that they'll change their practices," Schell says, "but we also hope that the lawsuits send a signal to other farmers: Ignore the law at your peril."

Heading west on Clint Moore Road in Boca Raton, the backdrop is quintessential South Florida. Strip malls, storage facilities, and industrial parks bleed into gated housing developments with artificial lakes and names such as Fox Hill Estates and Kensington. These, in turn, bleed into golf courses, polo fields, and country clubs.

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