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.

The H-2A program was a mainstay of the sugar cane industry in western Palm Beach County for years, providing thousands of seasonal Caribbean workers, who performed the brutal work of cutting cane by hand. It was also a lightning rod for litigation, brought by advocates who claimed workers were systematically cheated out of their wages. The lawsuits continue to be fought today, despite the mechanization of cane harvesting in the early '90s, which eliminated the need for most seasonal workers.

Florida vegetable growers rarely use the H-2A program. But in 1997 Thomas Brothers filed a request for foreign workers. "This is being done as a last resort," John Thomas told The Palm Beach Post at the time. When Thomas Brothers placed the required labor order with the state job office in Belle Glade, however, the agency came back with 125 Haitian women ready to work. Under the rules of the program, Thomas Brothers was essentially forced to hire the women. The jobs paid a guaranteed $6.36 an hour, according to the H-2A application, and the women were guaranteed wages for at least 30 hours a week, from October 1997 until June 1998.

Rather than honor that commitment, the plaintiffs in the lawsuit now charge, Thomas Brothers and Ramon Sanchez Enterprises shortchanged the workers on pay, then systematically purged them so that Mexican workers could be hired at minimum wage. "The whole game was to get rid of them," says Schell. "They were stuck in a deal they hadn't anticipated. They wanted to get out of it as quickly as possible."

When Hurricane Irene ripped through South Florida unexpectedly in October, leaving a swath of destruction diagonally across the state, John Thomas climbed in his truck and followed the storm up the turnpike. From Thomas' perspective, Irene seemed to take a route expressly designed to destroy as much of his fall crop as possible. "This was not a democratic storm," Thomas says. "It was a selective storm."

Perhaps Thomas believed that Hurricane Irene wouldn't have the gall to destroy his crops while he bore witness. But if that was his thinking, it proved to be in error: about 60 percent of the farm's Florida fall crop was destroyed, according to Thomas.

It is clear that John Thomas, despite nearing 80 years of age, takes an active interest in the goings-on of his farming operation. Sitting in a nondescript conference room on the second floor of one of the packinghouses along Clint Moore Road, he proudly notes that he hasn't had a vacation in three years. In overseeing his various farms in Palm Beach, Martin, Hendry, and St. Lucie counties -- about 13,000 acres in all -- Thomas puts 50,000 miles on his truck annually. He also makes several trips each year to western New York, just south of Buffalo, where the Thomas farming operation got its start around the turn of the century and where they still grow grain, strawberries, and corn.

Thomas has an easy smile, gravelly voice, and an aw-shucks manner. The image he projects is more Norman Rockwell than corporate baron. By 6 a.m. each day, he's at the breakfast table with two bowls of Total cereal and 16 ounces of orange juice. "When I leave the house in the morning, I am fortified," he says. Thomas portrays the operation as a family farm: his seven children all work in the business.

Despite his rigorous oversight of the farm, when the subject turns to labor problems, the septuagenarian farmer pleads folksy ignorance. In Thomas' eyes, the current MFJP lawsuits are as much beyond his control as Hurricane Irene. He puts the blame for any problem on the labor contractors, also known as crew leaders, who Thomas employs. "I think we're clean as a whistle on our part," he says. "We were sitting back here doing everything right. Then this crew-leader thing dropped in on us."

Thomas characterizes himself as a benevolent employer, providing opportunities to hundreds of marginalized people who otherwise have few economic options. "The true story of what goes on in our fields is a lousy story, because it's not sensational," he says.

This is not the first time that labor problems have dogged Thomas, though. The company's compliance history with the Department of Labor is several inches thick. In 1987, for instance, an investigation found that Thomas Brothers and its farm labor contractor were charging workers in their tomato packinghouse money for transportation, thus bringing their compensation below the minimum wage -- exactly the accusation that is being leveled against them today. In 1989, 1992, 1994, and again this year, Thomas was fined for utilizing the services of an unlicensed farm labor contractor. Another inquiry in 1993 cited Thomas Brothers for numerous violations relating to transportation of farm workers, such as failing to provide a safe vehicle or to obtain insurance. Earlier this year an investigation of two housing facilities along State Road 7 operated by Thomas Brothers and Ramon Sanchez found unsanitary toilets and a host of other minor problems such as overcrowding and broken windows.

Ramon Sanchez has a similarly long history of government investigations. Most notably, in March 1996 a crew of Sanchez's laborers got in an automobile accident in Hendry County while on their way to work. One of the occupants told investigators that she was only 15 years old when she began working for Sanchez -- a potential violation of child-labor laws. The woman, an illegal Mexican immigrant, testified in a sworn statement that she knew of six other workers who were underage and that there was no effort by Sanchez to verify that employees were old enough to work. The woman told investigators that someone from Sanchez's company visited her home and warned her to keep quiet or they would turn her over to the Immigration and Naturalization Service. According to a 1996 review by the Florida Department of Labor and Employment Security, 75 percent of Sanchez's employees did not have valid social security numbers. Despite this abundance of evidence, the investigation was closed in June 1996 without any disciplinary action.

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