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.

Both Thomas Brothers and Ramon Sanchez Enterprises have been fined repeatedly over the years for violations, with assessments ranging from $500 to $4900, but the penalties seem to have had little effect on their employment practices.

Philip Martin, the University of California at Davis professor, cautions that a long list of labor violations does not necessarily mean that Thomas Brothers is deliberately mistreating workers. "The farm labor market is one of the most regulated labor markets, therefore there's a high level of violations," he says. "Even at so-called 'good farms.'"

Rather than alter its employment practices to comply with those stringent regulations, Thomas Brothers, like many large farms, has often concentrated its resources on overhauling the country's labor laws. While John Thomas may revel in the role of the folksy farmer, he is far from unsophisticated when it comes to getting what he wants. When the subject turns to politics, Thomas and his son Stephen are all smiles, rattling off a list of power brokers who they have the ear of. "I could show you pictures of me with Senator Graham and his daughters," Thomas says, speaking of the man whose name has been tossed around as a candidate for vice president.

John Thomas has presided over the family farming business in Palm Beach County for more than four decades
Melissa Jones
John Thomas has presided over the family farming business in Palm Beach County for more than four decades

"We've had just one-on-one lunches with Governor Bush," adds Stephen Thomas.

There's a good (and obvious) reason why bigwig politicians find time to meet with the Thomases: money. According to Federal Election Commission records, members of the Thomas family have given at least $38,550 to national political campaigns since 1994. Senator Graham, a Democrat, has received a total of at least $8000 from six different members of the Thomas clan. The leading candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, Texas governor George W. Bush, has already received $4000 from the Boca Raton farmers.

Several key bills affecting farm workers are now pending before Congress. Perhaps the most important is a bill introduced in October and cosponsored by Senator Graham that would revamp the H-2A program. The legislation, optimistically entitled the "Agricultural Job Opportunity Benefits and Security Act of 1999," would no longer require farmers to provide housing to workers they bring in from overseas, and it would eliminate work guarantees for imported laborers. Perhaps most notably, the legislation would no longer require farmers to prove that there are no Americans available to perform the jobs for which they want to hire foreign workers -- the very stipulation that tripped up Thomas Brothers in its last attempt to use the H-2A program.

Another provision of the bill is aimed at the sticky issue of illegal immigrants. Acknowledging that a large number of farm workers are here without authorization, the legislation provides a means by which those laborers can legitimize their employment. Farm workers would have to prove that they had worked at least 180 days in each of five years over a seven-year period. Those who could do so would then be issued a green card to work legally in the United States.

Farm worker advocates note that it is extremely difficult for migrant workers to find 180 days of work in a year and that the laborers would be inordinately dependent upon their employers in order to meet the quota. The Farmworker Justice Fund, a national advocacy group based in Washington, D.C., likens the system to indentured servitude. It claims in an analysis of the bill that it would "indenture foreign workers to agriculture and suppress improvements in labor conditions for all farm workers."

John Thomas derides the notion that there is something wrong with requiring people to work a certain number of hours in a specific field of work in order to remain in the country. "They call that a contract," he says. Thomas notes that many of the descendants of people who came to this country as indentured servants centuries ago are now CEOs of corporations.

When it comes to the lawsuits, however, he assumes a more sympathetic tone. "When we walk away at the end of this, we just want everything to be right," he says.

On a late Friday afternoon in November, at a downtown Fort Lauderdale law firm, attorneys for Thomas Brothers Farms and the farm workers sat down to discuss the two lawsuits. It was a cordial meeting, with the normally irascible John Thomas leaving most of the talking to the attorneys. Thomas Brothers conceded that there were some legitimate problems, at least in the minimum wage case, and noted that the farm has already made some changes to ensure its workers earn at least minimum wage. The workers at the packinghouse have now been brought in-house, with their paychecks issued directly by the farm, cutting out the labor contractor middleman. In addition Thomas Brothers now regularly audits the payrolls of its farm labor contractors.

The cordiality broke down, however, as it almost always does in these matters, when the issue of money arose. According to Schell the figures tossed around at the meeting ranged from $300,000 to $1 million to dispose of the minimum wage suit. But Thomas Brothers claimed that the company can't afford that kind of money. Despite the family's numerous political contributions and thousands of acres of farms in two states, Hurricane Irene left them without enough resources to settle the lawsuits.

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